Good luck filling out those brackets. The No. 1 seeds are set for the NCAA tournament, but very little has gone as expected in this college basketball season.
No reason for things to change now.
Louisville received the top overall seed Sunday after romping through the Big East tournament, while Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga claimed the other No. 1 spots. Yet, considering all the upsets that have prevented anyone from establishing themselves as a clear-cut favorite, there are plenty of teams that think they can run the table.
“More than any year I can remember, I don’t think seeding really matters,” said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, whose team has a chance at getting Louisville in the round of 16. “Probably if you’re a 1 seed, your first game, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting by that. Then even after that, I think it’s throw it up in the air.”
One thing is for certain: Kentucky won’t be repeating as national champion.
The Wildcats didn’t even make the 68-team field, becoming the first defending champ since North Carolina in 2010 to miss out the following season.
“You’ve got to earn it each and every year,” said Mike Bobinski, the Xavier athletic director who chaired the selection committee.
Louisville (29-5) certainly earned it, impressing the committee with a 10-game winning streak capped by a stunning turnaround in the final Big East championship game as we know it. The Cardinals were 16 points down to Syracuse early in the second half, but they turned up the full-court pressure and wound up with a 78-61 triumph.
Now, they’re what passes for a favorite in this wide-open field, after making a surprising run to the Final Four as a No. 4 seed in 2012.
The Big East, in its final year before the basketball-only schools break away to form their own league, led the way with eight NCAA teams.
“We are ecstatic to be the No. 1 seed, particularly after finishing off one of the greatest conferences in the history of college basketball with a Big East championship,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.
The Cardinals might face a tough matchup with Saint Louis on the second weekend, and could get No. 2 seed Duke — which led the RPI rankings but lost out on a top seed after stumbling in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament — in the regional final.
“We know we will be challenged right away in one of the toughest brackets that I’ve seen in quite some time,” Pitino said. “I think our guys are up for the challenge.”
The Big Ten was next with seven NCAA teams, but the so-called power conferences hardly had a monopoly on the at-large berths. For the second year in a row, the committee gave 11 of the 37 spots to teams from the lesser-known leagues.
Most surprising was Middle Tennessee, which lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament after winning the regular-season title.
In previous years, that likely would have been enough to knock the Blue Raiders (28-5) out of the NCAAs. Not this time. They are headed to the tournament, helped along by another in a series of upsets on the final weekend — Mississippi, which lost at Middle Tennessee in early December, knocked off Florida in the SEC championship game Sunday.
“They had no rough patches along the way, and their win over Ole Miss looks better at this point in time,” Bobinski said of the Blue Raiders.
The tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of games in Dayton, Ohio, but things really get rolling on Thursday and Friday, when 64 teams will be in action. Everyone is trying to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, which starts April 6 at the Georgia Dome.
Bobinski frequently cited quality road wins as a leading factor in who got bids, a big reason Kentucky (21-11) had to settle for the National Invitation Tournament. The Wildcats struggled to mesh with their latest group of potentially one-and-done freshmen, and took a major hit when the best of the bunch, Nerlens Noel, went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Kentucky lost its last four Southeastern Conference road games by an average of 17.5 points — including a 30-point blowout at Tennessee — then turned in another ugly performance when it needed to impress at the SEC tournament. A 64-48 loss to Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals pretty much finished off any chance the Wildcats had of sneaking into the NCAA field.
“I’m not saying they necessarily had to win it,” Bobinski said. “Just winning a game or winning two games would have given us a little more confidence about who they are as a team. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out for them.”
As if that’s not bad enough for Kentucky fans, Louisville gets to rub a little more salt in its rival’s wounds by opening the tournament about 75 miles from campus on Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Cardinals will face either Liberty or North Carolina State in a second-round game Thursday.
Kentucky plays an NIT game Tuesday — on the road because Rupp is taken for the NCAAs — at Robert Morris.
“It’s a great lesson for the future of our program and a humbling experience for me,” coach John Calipari said.
Gonzaga (30-2), relishing the first No. 1 seed in school history, faces No. 16 Southern in the second round of the West Regional at Salt Lake City on Thursday. The following day, Kansas (29-5) stays close to home, facing Western Kentucky in a South Region game at Kansas City, while Indiana (28-6) opens in Dayton against either LIU Brooklyn or James Madison.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga claiming the No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history. Bobinski said six teams were in the running for top seeds on the final weekend.
Kansas moved up to the second overall seed after winning the Big 12 tournament. Indiana held on to third overall despite falling to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals. The Zags claimed the last of the coveted No. 1 seeds, edging out ACC champion Miami.
The Hurricanes, known more for their football success, became the first ACC team to be denied a top seed after winning both the regular season and the conference tournament. They joined Duke, Georgetown from the Big East, and Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State as No. 2 seeds.
“If we had five spots, Miami would be there,” Bobinski said. “In the final analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. But it was very, very close.”
The top seeds are significant in at least one respect: A No. 1 has never lost to a 16th-seeded team.
Of course, if there was ever a year for that to happen, this might be it.
“It’s going to happen. A 16 is going to beat a 1 eventually,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “This is a unique tournament. I haven’t studied the bracket, but I would expect the unexpected. There will be a lot of mild upsets in this tournament.”