Ask any coach who has ever won one of those suckers if they encountered an "easy" road, no matter how relative, to a national championship.
No one in the 2005 bracket is going to knock down all four regional opponents with the ferocity of a Louisville slugger, with the yielder not wearing a blindfold, destroying so many flimsy piñatas.
Winning four regional games is going to take focused preparation and execution, along with, as is often the case, a liberal dosage of old-fashion "good fortune" sprinkled into the equation.
And then things are going to get really tough in St. Louis . . .
Here are my choices to get to the Edward Jones Dome in less than three weeks, and to cut down a lot of twine late night April 4:
VIA THE CHICAGO REGION:
THE WINNER: Illinois over Oklahoma State in the March 26 final.
AND HERE IS WHY: In this era of college basketball in which, because of the lure of the NBA dollars, players are bailing on college earlier and earlier – or not going at all. So, in most instances, teams with great chemistry, terrific guard play and a passion for playing sound defense for 40 minutes, get to Final Fours. And Bruce Weber's team has each of those elements covered. Then again, so do the Cowboys of Eddie Sutton. But this Illinois team is more multi-dimensional than the Saint Joseph's club that Oklahoma State barely edged in a regional final to get to San Antonio a year ago. And, minus Tony Allen, the Cowboys just aren't quite as good as they were 12 months ago.
ANOTHER OPTION: Arizona, if it can sidestep a potential stumbling block in Game 1 (Utah State, in Boise Thursday), and if the rest of its offense is functioning well enough that Salim Stoudamire doesn't need to score 30+ points to keep his club in the hunt each game.
VIA THE ALBUQUERQUE REGION:
THE WINNER: Wake Forest over Washington in the March 26 final.
AND HERE IS WHY: I seem to be give this region's top seed – Washington – much more of an opportunity to earn its way to St. Louis than most other national prognosticators. The Huskies' relentlessness, at both ends of the floor, along with their multiple scoring options from the perimeter (Tre Simmons, Nate Robinson and Will Conroy) and from inside or out (Brandon Roy, Mike Jensen, Jamaal Williams and Bobby Jones), make them as dangerous as North Carolina or Illinois over 94 feet. They'll get a severe test in the second round against a Pacific or Pittsburgh club that will slow it down and try to exploit a perceived weakness in the team's post defense. Ultimately, though Wake Forest, with guards in Chris Paul and Justin Gray who can stand up to the Huskies' pressure and a forceful post presence in Eric Williams, will have enough answers for all the dilemmas Washington poses. ANOTHER OPTION: Gonzaga. The Bulldogs beat Washington in Spokane in early December and are no doubt confident of their ability to do so again in the Pit some 3 ½ months later. They'll get to the Sweet 16 but probably face too many difficulties in trying to keep Wake Forest's offense in check at that point.
VIA THE SYRACUSE REGION:
THE WINNER: Connecticut over North Carolina in the March 27 final.
AND HERE IS WHY: This is going on the assumption that Rashad Anderson is healthy and able to make solid contributions. Since Marcus Williams' play began to solidify, I think Connecticut has been the second best team in the country. The team's legion of post players, led by sophomores Josh Boone and Charlie Villanueva, is second to none. Rudy Gay might not produce Carmelo Anthony-like numbers of two years ago for Syracuse but he's going to cause the same kind of inside/outside matchup problems his fellow Baltimore native did while leading the Orangemen (now just "Orange", of course) over Kansas for a national title in 2003. Why am I picking against North Carolina, possibly the most "talented" team in the country (at least in regards to total number of future NBA first-round selections)? I just haven't seen the Tar Heels play the kind of consistently determined defense a team must put on the floor for six consecutive games to win a title. ANOTHER OPTION: Kansas. Wayne Simien is playing phenomenally right now and, with so much NCAA tournament experience on the roster (Simien's classmates Aaron Miles, Keith Langford and Michael Lee have played in 15 tourney games!), nothing is going to rattle this club.
VIA THE AUSTIN REGION:
THE WINNER: Duke over Utah in the March 27 final. AND HERE IS WHY: The Blue Devils guard on every possession, they maximize all of their offensive options and they believe they will beat anyone, anywhere. Having Shelden Williams flexing his biceps in the lane and along the baseline, and J.J. Redick running around the perimeter bouncing guys off picks and nailing jumpers from every angle, 20-plus feet from the rim, doesn't hurt, either. But, starting with the second round game against Stanford, Coach Mike Krzyzewski's team is capable of being beaten by anyone if the depth-strapped club gets into foul trouble. And that especially means you, Shavlik Randolph.
ANOTHER OPTION, PLUS ONE: Syracuse and Kentucky. I came-oh-so close to picking the Orange to knock off Duke in a Sweet 16 game – and may regret not doing so. The Wildcats defend well enough to win a national title and no one is better coached. But they have just struggled too often, offensively, to elicit confidence in their ability to score enough points to win six games.
ONCE THEY GET TO ST. LOUIS:
THE SEMIFINALS: Illinois over Wake Forest (the Demon Deacons get their rematch of the 91-73 thumping they took in Champaign on Dec. 1); Duke over Connecticut (the Blue get their rematch of their 79-78 loss to the eventual national champion in a Final Four semi a year ago). THE FINAL: Illinois over Duke (why sway from the "rematch" theme? The Blue Devils pulled away from the Illini in a Sweet 16 game in Atlanta, 72-62). Kentucky