And the favorite to win the 2005 NCAA basketball title, the University of Illinois team, will fire up its ignition in Indianapolis Thursday night when it takes on a No. 16 seed from Fairleigh Dickinson.
We tabbed Bruce Weber's team (in Lindy's Preseason Magazine) to win the national title and we've seen nothing since November that makes us suspect otherwise, from blistering Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Cincinnati in non-conference games, to cruising against its Big Ten competition with a just single hiccup at Ohio State in the regular-season finale.
The combination of dynamic guard play (Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown), underrated post players (led by Big Ten tourney MVP James Augustine, as well as Roger Powell, as good an undersized "power forward" as exists in college), defensive commitment, unselfishness, under-valued depth and a coach who has adroitly helped shaped their evolution into a near seamless unit is why the Illini are clearly the team everyone is chasing.
Here are some quick hits on the teams and players that make up the 16 first-round games Thursday, followed by brief looks at each of contests:
THE MOST INTRIGUING GAME: Arizona vs. Utah State (Boise). The Wildcats flamed out in the first round a year ago (to Seton Hall) while the Aggies, despite being ranked in the Top 25 much of the season, didn't get an at-large bid after losing in the Big West tournament semifinals a year ago. If Lute Olson's team is looking "bigger picture" beyond Thursday, the upset bug could bite hard once again.
THE COOL HEAD-TO-HEAD MATCHUPS: Here are a couple of them in the post, Nick Fazekas (Nevada) vs. Brad Buckman (Texas), in Indianapolis, and Spencer Nelson (Utah State) vs. Channing Frye (Arizona), in Boise. In backcourt, check out Marc Jackson (Utah) against Filiberto Rivera (UTEP), in Tucson.
THIS JUNE OR NEXT, FUTURE NBA LOTTERY PICKS: Andrew Bogut (Utah), Channing Frye (Arizona), Adam Morrison (Gonzaga), Chris Paul (Wake Forest) and Deron Williams (Illinois).
THURSDAY'S MOST UNDER-APRRECIATED (NATIONALLY) PLAYERS: Nick Fazekas (Nevada), Donnel Taylor (UAB), Brandon Bass (LSU), Christian Maraker (Pacific), Spencer Nelson (Utah State) and Juan Mendez (Niagara).
UPSET CITY? No. 11 UAB over No. 6 LSU. And No. 3 Arizona better give its undivided attention to No. 14 Utah State, too.
THURSDAY SHOOTING STAR: Salim Stoudamire is too obvious a choice here so let's go with Nathan Funk, whose marksmanship will have to be money if No. 10 Creighton is to knock off No. 7 West Virginia.
THURSDAY GAMES (all local times) CHICAGO REGION At Indianapolis No. 8 Texas (20-10 vs. No. 9 Nevada (24-6), 7:10 p.m. Things to Consider: The Longhorns played well enough after losing sophomore forward P.J. Tucker (academics) and freshman center LaMarcus Aldridge (hip injury) to merit an at-large selection; junior forward Brad Buckman and freshman guard Daniel Gibson are now the team's mainstays. The Wolf Pack lost Kirk Snyder (to the NBA) and their coach, Trent Johnson (to Stanford). But Mark Fox has done a great job in replacing Johnson and sophomore Nick Fazekas is one of the most skilled big men in the country.
Frank's Spin: We'll go with Nevada, in a minor "upset" because of the play of Fazekas and its own standout freshman point guard, Ramon Sessions.
No. 1 Illinois (32-1) vs. No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson (20-12), approximately 9:40 p.m. Things to Consider: The Knights are 0-3 in NCAA tournament action and if they're standing at 1-3 Friday morning, we're talking about the greatest upset in the tournament's history. If we need to recount to you all of the reasons why Illinois has clearly been the best team in the country this season, you obviously don't pay attention to college basketball until the tournament starts. Frank's Spin: The Illini bench will get a very nice workout in this one.
At Cleveland No. 5 Alabama (24-7) vs. No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-5), 12:25 p.m. Things to Consider: The Panthers lost a heart-breaker to Notre Dame in their first and only NCAA appearance two years ago. In case you're not hip to this fact, Bruce Pearl is a heck of a coach. The Crimson Tide lost in an Elite Eight game (to eventual champion Connecticut) a year ago and, with four starters from that team still in the lineup, are capable of a comparable run this time around.
Frank's Spin: Alabama survived a first-round scare from another "mid-major" (Southern Illinois) in 2004 and this one could be every bit as tough for Mark Gottfried's crew. But we'll go with the team from Tuscaloosa.
No. 4 Boston College (24-4) vs. Pennsylvania (20-8), approximately 2:55 p.m. Things to Consider: The Eagles started out 20-0 and looked like a potential No. 1 seed before slumping a bit. The Quakers breezed through the Ivy League but no one needs to be reminded that the level of competition is more than just a tad more competitive within the Big East.
Frank's Spin: Southern California residents Craig Smith (Los Angeles) and Jared Dudley (San Diego) are anything but laid back for Boston College, as Penn will find out.
No. 6 LSU (20-9) vs. No. 11 Alabama-Birmingham (21-10), approximately 7:40 p.m.
Things to Consider: The Tigers have a couple of potent front-court performers in sophomore forward Brandon Bass (the SEC Player of the Year) and freshman 300-pound plus center Glen Davis. That being said, they better not play loose and crazy with the basketball against the Blazers' all-court pressure. And 6-6 swingman Donnel Taylor of UAB could prove to be the best player on the floor.
Frank's Spin: The Blazers' pressing tactics wreaked a lot of havoc during a narrow loss to Louisville in the Conference USA tournament semifinals. Unless the Tigers can make that pressure backfire on UAB in the form of dunks, layups and wide open jumpers, the Blazers – who stunned top seed Kentucky in the second round a year ago – will end the season of a SEC member for the second March in a row.
At Cleveland No. 2 Wake Forest (26-5) vs. No. 15 Chattanooga (20-10), 7:10 p.m.
Things to Consider: A lot of people thought the Demon Deacons, and not Washington, should have been a No. 1 seed. Here's the deal: They can prove those people correct by winning their next four games and getting to St. Louis.. Frank's Spin: Is this the Chris Paul College Farewell Tour for Wake Forest? If so, it's beginning with a resounding first-round victory.
No. 7 West Virginia (21-10) vs. No. 10 Creighton (23-10), approximately 9:40 p.m.
Things to Consider: The Mountaineers are the best long-range shooting team in the Big East. But check out the Bluejays' Nathan Funk. His jump shot is as outrageous (.467 on 3's) as his last name.
Frank's Spin: At least one of the Missouri Valley entrants (the others being Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa) is going to win a first-round game. And we think Creighton is as safe a choice as any to make good on our prediction.
No. 8 Pacific (26-3) vs. No. 9 Pittsburgh (20-8), 10:40 a.m.
Things to Consider: This has the makings of the best, or at least the toughest to call, of the first-round matchups. Both teams are strong, up front, with solid point guard point play in Carl Krauser for Pitt and David Doubley (the Big West Conference MVP) for the Tigers.
Frank's Spin: If Jamie Dixon can't convince his team that UOP could hang with almost any team in the Big East, then the Panthers are in trouble. If he can, then Chevon Troutman, inside, and Krauser, on the perimeter, should generate enough offense to get their team to the second round.
No. 1 Washington (27-5) vs. No. 16 Montana (18-12), approximately 1:10 p.m.
Things to Consider: If the Huskies are still whoopin' and hollerin' after bagging the No. 1 seed Sunday, things will be a little too close for comfort, at least in the early going, against a very well-coached (former NBA power forward Larry Krystkowiak) club from the Big Sky. Frank's Spin: It would seem inevitable that some day a No. 16 is going to actually knock off a top seed. That day isn't going to be Thursday in Boise.
At Tucson No. 3 Gonzaga (25-4) vs. No. 14 Winthrop (27-5), 5:25 p.m.
Things to Consider: Another team from the Northwest (hint: it goes by the nickname "Huskies") got the No. 1 seed although the Bulldogs had a better overall record and beat that team in Spokane in December. And since going to the West regional final in 1999 (where it lost to eventual champion Connecticut), Gonzaga has been bounced in the first round just once, in 2002.
Frank's Spin: The Eagles take an 18-point winning streak into this game. They will not leave the McKale Center with a 19-game streak Thursday evening.
No. 6 Texas Tech (20-10) vs. No. 11 UCLA (18-10), approximately 7:55 p.m.
Things to Consider: The Bruins (a seven-post loss to Oregon State in the first round of the Pac 10 Tournament during a game in which they trailed by 23 points) and Red Raiders (a three-point defeat to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 final) played at different ends of the performance spectrum in their respective conference tournaments. How will a UCLA starting lineup with three freshmen hold up against a Bob Knight-coached team that will make it guard on every possession and make it difficult for the Bruins to get quality shots each time they have the ball?
Frank's Spin: A year from now, the Bruins will contend for a Pac 10 title. Now, barring one of their three or four best performances of the season, they're going to have to settle for "one and done" as their tourney experience.
AUSTIN REGION At Indianapolis
No. 2 Kentucky (25-5) vs. No. 15 Eastern Kentucky (22-8), 12:20 p.m.
Things to Consider: The Colonels are the ultimate Cinderellas for three reasons: 1) They haven't played in the tournament since 1975; 2) We all know who the in-state powerhouse is in this matchup; and, 3) EKU's coach, Travis Ford, is a former Wildcats' standout guard.
Frank's Spin: The guess is that no one in the tournament will play with more determination than Ford's crew and it will earn a lot of admiration if also a lopsided defeat.
No. 7 Cincinnati (24-7) vs. No. 10 Iowa (21-11), approximately 2:50 p.m. Things to Consider: The Bearcats beat just three teams, Northern Iowa, Charlotte (twice) and UAB, that are in the tournament field. Iowa beat seven (Louisville, Texas, Northern Iowa, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Minnesota and Michigan State). Five consecutive victories over Big Ten opponents down the stretch got the Hawkeyes one of the 34 at-large bids. Frank's Spin: Iowa's NCAA tourney hopes seemed nil not so long ago but the Hawkeyes appear to be a better team than the Bearcats right now so should advance to the second round. At Tucson No. 3 Oklahoma (24-7) vs. No. 14 Niagara (20-9), 10:45 a.m.
Things to Consider: Niagara hasn't been in the NCAA tournament since 1970, while the Sooners' wait has been just two years. The Purple Eagles' 6-8 Juan Mendez will have to come out on top in his battles inside with Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout if Niagara is going to spring an upset. Frank's Spin: The Sooners shared the Big 12 title with Kansas but were the best team in the league for a few weeks before losing to Texas Tech in the conference tourney semifinals. It's not going to be a breeze but they should get by this one and into a Saturday second-round game.
No. 6 Utah (27-5) vs. No. 11 UTEP (27-7), approximately 1:15 p.m.
Things to Consider: Both coaches (Ray Giacoletti and Doc Sadler, respectively) are in their first seasons as their school's head honchos. Utah sophomore center Andrew Bogut will get most of the attention but UTEP has two exceptional players in point guard Filberto Rivera and forward Omar Thomas.
Frank's Spin: Bogut's college career is extended one more game ... with a lot of help from his friends, notably senior guard Marc Jackson.