Posted: Sunday March 13, 2005 10:42PM; Updated: Sunday March 13, 2005 11:05PM
Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini should be cutting down the nets in St. Louis.
Forecasting the 2005 NCAA tournament boils down to one central issue: Are you or are you not an Illinois believer?
The Illini come into the tournament with a staggering 32-1 record. They're entering their 15th week as the nation's No. 1 team, the longest streak since Kansas in 1997. They've beaten 11 teams ranked in the RPI top 50; no one else can claim more than eight.
Yet there's no escaping that overriding sense around the country that few hoopheads regard this Illinois team as an overwhelming favorite the way they did with that Paul Pierce-led Jayhawks team, which also entered the tourney with just one loss, or another recent one-loss juggernaut, Elton Brand's '99 Duke team.
We're talking about a lingering skepticism that existed before the Illini's first loss at Ohio State last weekend. Perhaps it's because they're not loaded with future lottery picks like those aforementioned squads. Perhaps it's the belief they play in a mediocre conference.
All I know is this: With the exception of ESPN's Brent Musburger and Steve Lavin -- who, by my count, have called about 27 of their games this season -- you rarely hear the words "Illinois is clearly the best team in the country" on national TV or in print.
There may very well be more talented teams out there than the Illini. According to the selection committee, the most qualified candidates are North Carolina, Duke and ... umm -- did I read that right? -- Washington.
But as you tear out your hair in the coming hours poring over your bracket, the question to ask yourself is this: Can I trust any of them as much as Illinois?
The Tar Heels are equally capable of beating anyone by 40 as they are falling behind 15 and clawing back. The Blue Devils have proven every bit their equal, but are one injury away from having to hold an expansion draft. The Huskies were as fortunate to make it out of their first-round game against Arizona State as they were to win the Pac-10 tournament.
You can go on and on. Wake Forest, Oklahoma State, Kentucky, Connecticut. All have had their ups and downs. Ditto Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma and the rest.