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Michael Wilbon

Top Seeds Are Ripe for The Picking

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page G01

The teams are so indistinguishable, so interchangeable. Throw out the teams seeded 15th and 16th, and who can tell the difference? What the NCAA men's tournament field lacks in power and glory it makes up for in overall quality and depth, which ought to make for a lot of surprises. By surprises I mean early-round stunners, of which there simply haven't been enough in recent tournaments, and, of course, buzzer-beaters, of which there were none in the first weekend last year.

I'll trade powerhouse teams for opening weekend upsets and game-ending baskets any day.

So, I'm sure, would George Washington. Let me get this straight: GW's reward for winning the Atlantic 10 tournament, for winning 10 of its past 12 games, is to play suddenly resurgent ACC tournament runner-up Georgia Tech, which lost in last year's NCAA title game? The Atlantic 10 is reduced to one team -- GW -- and this is what it draws?

There are no soft landings in this tournament, not for the Colonials, not even for top seeds Illinois, North Carolina, Duke and Washington after the first game. This year's tournament sets up as Office Pool Hell. One indication of the depth of any tournament is how many teams seeded 10th or lower appear to have a legitimate shot of winning in the first round.

In this case, there are plenty. Not only is it easy to make the case that North Carolina State, seeded 10th in the Syracuse Regional, will beat seventh-seeded Charlotte, but I'll bet money out of my own pocket that N.C. State will be favored in Vegas going into the game. Iowa, another team seeded 10th, could easily knock off seventh-seeded Cincinnati, especially when you consider how poorly the Bearcats play in the tournament.

The theme of 10th-seeded teams winning carries out to the Albuquerque Regional, where Creighton could knock off West Virginia and where UCLA is my bet to beat Bob Knight and Texas Tech. I might even go as far as taking 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Milwaukee to beat Alabama.

Okay, one bracket does appear to be a little more glamorous than the others, and that's the Syracuse Regional where North Carolina, U-Conn., Kansas, Florida, Villanova, Wisconsin and N.C. State all reside.

That's got even more glitz than Illinois, Oklahoma State, Arizona and Boston College in the Chicago Regional. If there's a head-scratcher, it's how in the world Washington is seeded No. 1 while Louisville, a conference champ with only four losses, is seeded fourth in the same region.

I love chumps who fill out their brackets by simply advancing all the top seeds, especially in a field like this, because anybody who anticipates a few upsets or is willing to make a low-risk gamble on a hot team with a moderate seed should be so much better off. With that in mind, I'm looking for teams seeded fourth, fifth or sixth that I think can go at least to the final eight and wreak some havoc on the bracket.

Give me fifth-seeded Villanova with its wonderful guard play in Syracuse as a potential bracket buster.

Give me fourth-seeded Syracuse in Austin and fifth-seeded Georgia Tech in Albuquerque. Syracuse and Tech simply have too many players with championship game experience to ignore.

As long as we're admitting our prejudices, I'm biased toward teams that have one all-court player who can dominate a game. Hakim Warrick can dominate a game. Remember, he's the one who blocked a Kansas shot to secure the national championship victory for the Orange two years ago. As great as Duke's J.J. Redick is, Warrick can affect a game in more ways. As difficult as each region is, overall No. 1 seed Illinois should benefit from not being in the same bracket as Redick, as Warrick, as Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf, as Utah's Andrew Bogut, as N.C. State's Julius Hodge.

Illinois has the closest thing in the tournament to a favorable draw of the No. 1 seeds. This bracket will have the Illini defeating a very talented Arizona team in the regional final, but only because the game will be played in Chicago. Georgia Tech, despite its ACC tournament final loss to Duke, knows it is playing well enough to beat anybody in the tournament and will beat Louisville to wind up playing (drum roll!) Gonzaga in the Albuquerque Regional final. North Carolina will have to be at its best to beat Villanova and then U-Conn. in the regional final.

The fact that Duke earned a No. 1 seed is testament to how well these particular players work together and how fabulous Mike Krzyzewski is as a coach. If I had one game to play and my life was on the line I'd take Coach K over anybody and everybody. But Duke is going to struggle with Stanford in the second round and get knocked out by Syracuse, which will get to meet Oklahoma in the Austin Regional final.

That leaves Illinois, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Syracuse in the Final Four, and a whole lot of really good teams feeling, even more than usual, that they were so incredibly close to reaching the national semifinals themselves.

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