Chicago Regional Preview

A breakdown of the regional headlined by the nation's top regular-season team, Illinois.

We already know which team is going to have the off-the-charts support of the bulk of those who will pack the Allstate Arena Thursday and (assuming Wisconsin-Milwaukee doesn't pull off the mother of all tournament stunners) Saturday during Chicago, aka, "Midwest," regional play.

But is the figurative road to St. Louis and the Final Four as easy to navigate as the literal one would be for the No. 1 team in the country?

Stay tuned, as the University of Illinois Illini, which overwhelmingly demonstrated that they were 2004-05's best team in the regular season, has just two remaining speed bumps to tread before they can prove they are No. 1 – once and for all of the season – on the first weekend of April in the Edward Jones Dome.

Here's a look at the region, and its Thursday matchups. And notice that we've deviated from our original thoughts on an Arizona-Oklahoma State showdown:

CHICAGO REGION
Allstate Arena (Rosemont, Ill.)


SCANNING THE REGION:
THE SURPRISE
: Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Unless, of course, you can produce a notarized tournament pool bracket sheet that shows you had the Panthers advancing to the Sweet 16.
HALL OF FAME PRESENCE: Lute Olson (Arizona; inducted in 2002). Maybe it's just me, but doesn't he look 71-going-on-about-55? And we've got to believe that Oklahoma State's Eddie Sutton will eventually get his Springfield, Mass., induction papers, too.
SENIOR MOMENTS: Channing Frye and Salim Stoudamire (Arizona); Joey Graham, Ivan McFarlin and John Lucas, III (Oklahoma State); Roger Powell (Illinois); and Ed McCants (Wisconsin-Milwaukee). Ironically enough, Graham and Lucas (both Final Four starters a year ago), weren't outstanding in Rounds I&II. You can't figure that's going to last for long. Stoudamire and Graham are second- and third-team, respectively, Associated Press All-Americans.
BEST PLAYMAKER/FLOOR LEADER: Deron Williams (Illinois). He outplayed Chris Paul (Wake Forest) on Dec. 1. Maybe he'll get an opportunity to do the same thing against Raymond Felton (North Carolina) on April 4.
BEST REBOUNDER: His scoring productivity (31 points) helped his team overcome Southern Illinois in Round 2. But snatching missed shots is what Ivan McFarlin (Ohio State) does better, pound for pound, inch for inch, etc., than anyone in this region.
BEST JUMP SHOOTER: Salim Stoudamire (Arizona). No discussion necessary.
BEST DEFENDER: Dee Brown (Illinois) is the proverbial gnat while darting at dribblers and bouncing into passing lanes.
THE BEST PLAYER/RIGHT NOW: We'll go with the most versatile and dependable player on the best team in the country – 6-3 Luther Head (Illinois).
THE TOP FRESHMAN: JamesOn Curry (Oklahoma State). There were extended periods in Rounds I&II when he looked like Eddie Sutton's best player.
THE BEST PLAYER/FIVE YEARS HENCE: Channing Frye (Arizona). Remember where you read it first when he's a lottery selection and, probably, the second college "big man" chosen in the June NBA draft after Andrew Bogut (Utah).

CHECKING OUT THE GAMES:
(local starting times)

No. 1 Illinois (34-1) vs. No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee (26-5), 6:27 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE:
It's the season-long best team in the country against a Horizon Conference team that has stunned a couple of "power" conference squads (Alabama of the SEC and Boston College of the Big East). And the Panthers play a pressing style on defense and have an up-tempo approach to offense that, conventional wisdom holds, should play right into the backcourt-rich Illini power ally.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Panthers' Coach Bruce Pearl isn't going to alter his team's style for the best team in the country. So will the full-court pressure force a lot of Illinois turnovers? Not likely but if Illini plays at a more break-neck tempo than it was accustomed to against Big Ten foes and isn't knocking in its jump shots, there is a chance – albeit a small one – that UWM could pull off the stunner. Of course, that would also entail the Panthers shooting as well from the perimeter against a very good man to man defensive team as they did in Rounds I&II (when they hit a total of 23 3-pointers).
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? Illinois.

No. 2 Oklahoma State (26-6) vs. No. 3 Arizona (29-6), approximately 8:57 p.m.
IT'S COMPELLING VIEWING BECAUSE:
Two of the most respected coaches – ever – are leading their teams in what could be the best regional semifinal. Lute Olson has won a national title (1997). Can Eddie Sutton bag one before he retires? This may be his last "best" chance to do so.
WHAT'S LIABLE TO TAKE PLACE: Sutton's teams are known for their solid half-court man-to-man defense and it will be tested against an Arizona lineup that includes two of the elite players in the country in center Channing Frye and shooting guard Salim Stoudamire. The Wildcats use a lot of 1-3-1 zone, defensively, which, in theory, should make it more difficult for the Cowboys' best inside scoring threats, Joey Graham and Ivan McFarlin, to get the ball into their comfort zones. If fouls or injuries become issues, the Wildcats have superior depth, with Chris Rodgers, Jawann McClellan and Kirk Walters all playing very well of late. The "X" factor? JamesOn Curry of OSU. The guy seems to be knocking down all open looks of late.
WHO WILL BE PLAYING SATURDAY? Arizona.



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 frank.burlison@presstelegram.com.

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