North Carolina, Connecticut, Kansas and Florida made up, in many minds, the toughest of the top four seeds in any of the regions.
At least it appeared so for a while.
What we're left with today is, in reality, what we only had for sure when the field of 65 was unveiled – a region led by North Carolina, which has more high quality players than any team in the tournament.
So it's still the Tar Heels "and everyone else" – and the latter group has been pared to Villanova (UNC's opponent Friday), along with another Atlantic Coast Conference club in North Carolina State, and the Big Ten Conference tourney runner-up in Wisconsin.
Here's a look at the teams and players in the Syracuse region, which holds its semifinals Friday and championship game Sunday:
Carrier Dome (Syracuse, N.Y.)
SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE: North Carolina State, a 10th seed, is still playing because it rallied from 14 points down in the first half to beat No. 7 Charlotte and then edged No. 2 Connecticut. Wisconsin, a 6 seed, didn't have to deal with No. 3 Kansas in the second round because the Jayhawks were tripped up by Bucknell in Round 1.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: None of his teams has won a national title – although we might not be able to say that after April 4 – but who doesn't assume UNC's Roy Williams will be a Hall of Fame coach some day?
SENIOR MOMENTS: Jawad Williams and Jackie Manuel (North Carolina); Julius Hodge (North Carolina State); and Mike Wilkinson, Sharif Chambliss, Clayton Hansen and Zach Morley (Wisconsin).
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Julius Hodge (North Carolina State). Is he a "point guard" in the mold of, say, Raymond Felton (North Carolina)? Of course he isn't. But there is no one in this region who is a better on-court leader, or more important to his team's well being at both ends of the floor, than Hodge.
BEST REBOUNDER: Sean May (North Carolina). He's a prime example of why, to be a tremendous rebounder, it's not how high you jump but how quickly you jump – and better yet, how quickly you get to the basketball.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Rashad McCants (North Carolina). Off the dribble, off the pass and under duress, he's as good as it gets in this region.
BEST DEFENDER: Jackie Manuel (North Carolina). Remember when Michael Cooper was harassing the likes of Larry Bird with his quick hands, quick feet and shut ‘em down attitude? That's whom Manuel is most reminiscent of.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: We could go with either Sean May or Julius Hodge but the NCSU senior gets the ever-so-slight nod because of his versatility.
THE TOP FRESHMAN: Marvin Williams (North Carolina). If he's still wearing a Tar Heels' uniform next season, he could wind up being the 2006 John R. Wooden Award winner.
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: OK. If you can't fill in the blank yourself on this one, here's a little hint – his first and last initials are "M" and "W". Got it?
CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)
No. 6 Wisconsin (24-8) vs. No. 10 North Carolina State (21-13), 7:27 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: This was supposed to be Kansas vs. Connecticut. OK, so this one doesn't have the sexiness that would have. This game won't have the same allure but this isn't going to be the 40-minute, walk-it-up-the-floor-at-all-costs affair that some would imagine. And Julius Hodge and Mike Wilkinson (Wisconsin) are two of best players not to make any of the Associated Press 1-3 All-America teams this week.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Julius Hodge was allowed to drive or post-up to either score or create offense for teammates any time it was needed against Connecticut. Don't count on Wisconsin Coach Bo Ryan allowing that to happen to his Badgers. And the Wolfpack can't allow Wilkinson, Zach Morley and Alando Tucker to dominate the NCSU frontcourt like the Badgers have done to pretty much everyone of late (other than Illinois in the Big Ten Conference tourney final).
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? A North Carolina-North Carolina State regional final would have ‘em fired up on Tobacco Road – and a lot of other places, too. But the Badgers' superior frontcourt play, led by Wilkinson, will prove the difference.
No. 1 North Carolina (29-4) vs. No. 5 Villanova (24-7), approximately 9:57 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE: The Wildcats aren't anyone's cute and fuzzy "sleeper". They demonstrated they were a Sweet 16-caliber club while smacking then-unbeaten Kansas in a non-conference game in January, then winning 11 Big East games to finish in a tie for second place. And they pounded the SEC tourney champion (Florida) in the second round of the tournament. North Carolina? Well, the Tar Heels have looked been absolutely overwhelming in Rounds I and II.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Villanova, even minus its best frontcourt player (Curtis Sumpter, who suffered a torn ACL vs. Florida) isn't going to be timid or back off what it does best. So look for the Wildcats to pressure the Tar Heels with their press and half-court defense, and to drive on the UNC defenders and kick it to open jump shooters. But if Villanova can't at least hinder the Tar Heels' transition/early offensive attack, well ... then the issue becomes how wide the final margin will be.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SUNDAY? North Carolina, for sure, will at least keep up its end of an "All-ACC regional final" bargain.
Recently elected to the USBWA Hall of Fame, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's National Basketball Expert and also covers college basketball for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.