By Tim Gutowski Published Mar 15, 2005 at 5:19 AM

{image1} There are two ways to fill out an NCAA Tournament bracket.

A -- You watch the pairings show on Sunday to see which team your alma mater is playing. You go online, print a bracket sheet from ESPN, spend 10 minutes figuring out your Final Four and upset specials, then fill out the rest of your picks by feel. ("Wait, they're decent this year, right? Yeah, they'll win three games.") Monday morning, you feel confident and refreshed.

B -- You frantically jot down the pairings while watching the show on Sunday. You bemoan your alma mater's seed, claiming its RPI, record in its last 10 games and "overall body of work" demanded a better draw. You watch three hours of tourney-related programming Sunday night, skipping dinner. You draft several "mock" brackets, plotting out multiple scenarios with different subsets of upsets. Around 2 a.m. you call it a night, knowing one thing for sure: Illinois looks like a good bet for the Sweet 16. You call in sick Monday morning.

I'm from Group B.

Keeping that fact in mind, here's my initial take on this year's bracket -- subject to change until 11:09 a.m. Thursday morning, of course.

Chicago Regional

Who should win: Illinois. They've been No. 1 since December. They've beaten UW three times. They have great guards, a solid inside game, and a coach whose mother just passed away (let's face it -- that's always a factor in these situations). Could they lose? Sure, but probably not until they reach the Final Four in St. Louis.

Who won't win, if only because they went to the Final Four last year: Oklahoma State. And that's about the only reason they won't. John Lucas leads a strong, fast and experienced team. Illinois will have its hands full in a possible Elite Eight match-up with the Cowboys. But how often do teams other than Duke make consecutive Final Fours?

Can UWM beat Alabama? It'll be difficult. To do so, the Panthers will need to create a lot of turnovers and not commit many. They'll also need big games from three of these four players: Ed McCants, Joah Tucker, Boo Davis and Adrian Tigert. Anything less won't suffice.

Albuquerque Regional

Who should win: Louisville. It's been awhile since Rick Pitino has had a team go far in the dance, and with Francisco Garcia and Ellis Myles, he's got a couple players who could spearhead a run. They'll need to beat Georgia Tech and Washington, most likely, to reach the regional final -- so it won't be easy.

How about Washington and Gonzaga? The 'Zags flamed out badly as a No. 2 seed last year, getting whipped in the second round. This year, they could match up with Bobby Knight and Texas Tech in the second round, a dangerous but beatable foe. As with many people east of the Rockies, I haven't seen much of U-Dub. But the Pac-10 lacks its typical bite, in my opinion. Thus, I don't think they'll win four games.

Pacific or Pitt? This is the classic toss-up No. 8 vs. No. 9 game: Small conference power versus power conference failure. But I like Pitt. If Pacific couldn't turn back Utah State in its conference title game, they won't beat an experienced and talented Big East (the best conference in the nation, in my mind) team in the NCAAs.

Syracuse Regional

Who will win: Not the Badgers. With North Carolina, UConn, Kansas, Florida and Villanova seeded ahead of them, they'd need a bigger miracle than the one Dick Bennett's 2000 squad pulled off to reach the Final Four. Having said that, I think KU should get it done. I hope I'm wrong.

How far will UW go? I guess I just answered this. Bo Ryan's boys should get past Northern Iowa in the opener Friday. However, KU is a lousy draw in round two. The Jayhawks will give UW problems in the same way Illinois and Michigan State do -- too much size, too many athletes. Only a huge game from beyond the three-point line can save the Badgers.

Who's running on fumes? No. 7 seed Charlotte got slapped around by Louisville in the regular-season "title" game, then fell early in the C-USA post-season tourney. Usually a dangerous NCAA team, Bobby Lutz's boys probably won't get past N.C. State in round one. If they do, UConn will show them the exit.

Austin Regional

Is Duke really that great? Sometimes, it doesn't seem like it. Other than J.J. Redick, Coach K's team lacks its typical star power. The inside guys don't wow me (Dick Vitale and every college announcer seem to love them, though). But I suppose this all should serve as a red flag. I'm picking them for St. Louis.

What about Syracuse? The fourth-seeded Orange are deep and talented. Several key guys are still here from the 2003 title winners, including Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara. If you don't pick Duke, take the Orange over a gritty, but less-than-stellar Kentucky team at No. 2, or a well-rounded, but beatable No. 3 in Oklahoma.

Worst draw? Why on earth did the committee feel compelled to put No. 15 Eastern Kentucky against in-state stud UK? Yeah, I know -- ex-Wildcat Travis Ford coaches EKU ... ooooo, how compelling! It's a clever gimmick by the committee, but it basically robs all the EKU people (who are likely UK fans, as well) of the full jubilation of making the tourney. Not that they wouldn't take an upset, of course.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.