The action's in Atlanta

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
Bracket Breakdowns: St. Louis | East Rutherford | Atlanta | Phoenix

Every year it happens. One region just winds up a little bit (or a lot) stronger than the others. The selection committee can crunch numbers and try to balance the brackets all it wants, but it is a coincidence that keeps repeating itself.

Consider the West Region last year that featured Arizona, Kansas, Duke and Illinois as the top four seeds.

Well, here is your loaded bracket of the 2004 tournament.

No. 1 seed Duke followed by Mississippi State, Texas, Cincinnati and Illinois. All but Texas won at least a share of their regular-season conference title. All but Mississippi State played for their respective tournament titles.

No mid-majors in that group.

Oh, and there is North Carolina, who many people think has the best starting five in college hoops, as the six-seed. White-hot Xavier, which pounded top-ranked Saint Joseph's en route to the Atlantic 10 Conference title, is seeded seventh.

Normally when you get past the eighth seed you get tricky if unheralded programs. The region has that in dangerous No. 13 East Tennessee State (27-5) and No. 12 Murray State (28-5), but does anyone really consider Arizona (the No. 9) or Louisville (No. 10) a dark-horse program?

And does anyone (in this case UNC) really want to play patriotic Americans' favorite tournament entry, Air Force (your tax money at work), in Denver?

Put simply, this is the one badass bracket. The four teams that advance to Atlanta will be an impressive group. The one that gets out truly will be battle-tested.

Three storylines
1. Air Force – Run the numbers (an RPI of 70) and compare the quality wins, and Air Force as an at-large team doesn't make sense. But the Falcons won the Mountain West by two full games. Besides, how do you leave Air Force out while we are waging a war on terror?

This is the feel-good story of the tournament; a group of our nation's best and brightest playing for glory just months before some of them begin active duty.

2. The loved/hated – People love Duke. Or hate Duke. Or love to hate Duke. People love Cincinnati. Or hate Cincinnati. Or love to hate Cincinnati. For two very different reasons, these are two of the most rooted against (and thus, by definition beloved) teams in the nation. Imagine the Sweet Sixteen game. Some haters would have nothing to like.

3. Potential mega-matchups – In case you didn't know (and if you don't, ESPN will tell you every five minutes) Duke and North Carolina have a bit of a rivalry going. But they have never met in the NCAA tournament, something that is possible if both advance to the Elite Eight, sending Tobacco Road into heart-attack alert.

Don't underestimate the equally bitter (just not as publicized) rivalry between Cincinnati and Xavier. The Crosstown Shootout is heated enough during the regular season. Now imagine an Elite Eight matchup. Cincy radio personality Andy Furman might go hoarse in anticipation.

Who Will Win?
Mississippi State.

We know, we know – it is against the law not to select Duke. But we will risk arrest and prosecution and go with the Bulldogs. And why not?

The regular season SEC champions are rested after bowing out of the league tourney early. It was just the kind of loss a coach loves because it refocuses a team that may have been getting a little overconfident.

In guard Timmy Bowers the Bulldogs (25-3) have a stud running the show. In forward Lawrence Roberts, it has a horse down low who can get baskets. They defend, shoot well, have great depth and a lot of size. They went 12-1 away from campus, including a perfect 8-0 in SEC play. This is no paper champ.

And in a region full of superstar programs, the Bulldogs will fly just enough under the radar to shock people.

Dark-horse pick (sixth seed or worse)
Xavier. The Musketeers didn't just upset the previously undefeated, top-ranked Saint Joseph's Hawks in the Atlantic 10 tournament. They annihilated them. It wasn't close. It was a total beat-down that only closed to 87-67 because XU called off the dogs.

From there XU went on to win the league title. The Musketeers now have won 13 of 14. The backcourt of Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato take a back seat to no one. And there is, understandably, plenty of confidence.

If Xavier keeps playing like this anything is possible.

Most likely upset
Murray State over Illinois.

Experience tends to overcome youthful talent. And Murray State (28-5) has plenty of experience (not to mention a bit of talent itself). The Racers have seven seniors including five of their top seven scorers. The other two are juniors.

Illinois is very good but it also is young, counting as much as it does on sophomores and freshmen.

Murray comes in red-hot, winning 13 of 14. It boasts five double-figure scorers, led by big-time forward Victor Cuthbert. This is an excellent team, and the Illini had better be ready for them.

Fun potential matchup
Princeton vs. Air Force (second round).

Princeton, not surprisingly, runs the Princeton offense. Air Force, thanks to head coach Joe Scott, who used to be an assistant at Princeton, does also. So what happens if this game occurs? Does anyone fall for the backdoor cut?

Or if you prefer ...
Maybe picking teams based on ability isn't your cup of tea. Hey, we all know anything works in the tournament, so here are a few other factors to consider:

Toughest mascot: Air Force Falcon. The bird itself is tough, but the backup it gets from F-16s puts it over the top.

Coolest school colors: Texas' burnt orange and white.

Best coach: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Best academic reputation: Princeton.

Prettiest campus: Air Force.

Best home court: Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Best state flower: Mississippi (Mississippi State), the magnolia.

Best state bird: Arizona's cactus wren.

Five stars to watch
Luol Deng, Fr., F, Duke: On a team full of stars he is the most talented.

Andre Barrett, Sr., G, Seton Hall: Often overlooked, but Barrett is a poor man's Jameer Nelson.

Tony Bobbitt, Sr., G, Cincinnati: When he is shooting well the Bearcats are really tough.

Lionel Chalmers, Sr., G, Xavier: A straight-up winner, Chalmers is playing his best ball right now.

Lawrence Roberts, Jr., G, Mississippi State: Baylor transfer is a load on the blocks.

Notes
• In the classic movie Clerks, the girlfriend who brings lasagna attended Monmouth.

• If both Murray State and Cincinnati advance, Racers coach Mick Cronin not only will face his alma mater but also Bob Huggins, the man who headed a staff that included Cronin for five years. Cronin left UC for rival Louisville in 2001, briefly straining the relationship with Huggins, but now all is forgiven.

• Duke plays its first two rounds in the home arena of North Carolina State. Cincinnati travels to Columbus, Ohio, hometown of Ohio State, which so despises UC it has refused to schedule the Bearcats for more than four decades.

• The regional features five teams that have captured the NCAA tournament (Arizona, Cincinnati, Duke, Louisville, North Carolina), one behind with the Phoenix Regional for the most.

• New Jersey has three schools in the region: Seton Hall (East Orange), Monmouth (West Long Branch) and Princeton (Princeton). Ohio (Cincinnati, Xavier), North Carolina (Duke, UNC) and Kentucky (Louisville, Murray State) have two.