Monday, March 15, 2010
The selection committee made its choices. Now, it's America's turn.
The country's biggest office pool, otherwise known as March Madness, serves up the usual smorgasbord of choices, starting with Kansas, the overall top seed in the 65-team NCAA tournament bracket released Sunday.
"It's a blessing, it's a burden," Kansas coach Bill Self said of being No. 1.
The Jayhawks are the early 2-1 betting favorite to make the Final Four and win their second national title in three years on April 5 in Indianapolis, but there are plenty of candidates to knock them off.
The list starts with the three other top seeds: Kentucky in the East, Duke in the South and Syracuse, which will have to travel about 2,000 miles for the West regional in Salt Lake City. The Orange are trying to make the Final Four for the first time since Carmelo Anthony led them to the title in 2003.
The Orange dropped below Duke in the rankings due to an early loss in the Big East tournament in which center Arinze Onuaku injured his right quadriceps. Onuaku, who averages 10 points, five rebounds and 1.1 blocks a game, isn't expected to play Friday when Syracuse opens against Vermont.
"We're proud to be a No. 1 seed," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "This team has worked extremely hard, been consistent all year. Obviously, the tournament is always going to be challenging. It'll be challenging right off the bat."
The tournament officially begins Tuesday with an opening-round game between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop. It reaches full swing Thursday with 16 games, including Kansas' opener against No. 16 Lehigh in the Midwest — a region that includes No. 2 Ohio State, No. 3 Georgetown, defending runner-up Michigan State and is largely considered the toughest of the four.
"After you look at the bracket, you say, 'Well, I don't think we had a lot of favors done for us,'" Self said.
Kansas was one of seven teams from the Big 12 to make it — one fewer than the Big East, which sent eight for the third time.
Winning the conference's regular-season title wasn't the accomplishment it might have been for Syracuse, though.
The Orange (28-4) lost to Georgetown in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. That pushed Syracuse down, below Duke, which was expected to contend with West Virginia for the final No. 1 spot.
Winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament helped Duke vault over Syracuse and the Mountaineers, who are No. 2 in the East.
"Once again, we're talking about the entire season," selection chairman Dan Guerrero said. "We place value on that. Obviously, the big center for Syracuse got banged up. That's an issue to some degree."
Before the committee even met, there was no question there will be a new national champion.
Defending titlist North Carolina was on a long list of traditional powerhouses that didn't receive spots in this year's tournament. That list also included UCLA, Indiana, Connecticut and Arizona, which had its NCAA-leading string of appearances snapped at 25 years.
It will be the first time since 1966 that all five of those big-name schools failed to make the tournament.
"I think it is so frustrating because we showed flashes what we can be and the team we can be, it seems like we'll play that way for a while, then we'll just stop," said Larry Drew II, the guard for North Carolina, which will head to the NIT with a 16-16 record.
Now holding the longest current streak is Kansas (32-2), making its 21st straight appearance.
Leading the Jayhawks are Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, two key pieces in the team's 2008 title run that was capped with a win over Memphis, then coached by John Calipari, who this season moved to Kentucky.
The Wildcats are the youngest of the top contenders, with three freshmen — John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe — among its top four scorers.
"We do so many dumb things," Calipari said. "You're up 18, then you look up and you're up two. You have to keep your emotions in check, stay together, understand teams are going to come at you and you have to play harder than they play."
If Kentucky gets past East Tennessee State in the first round, an intriguing matchup against Texas could be next. The Longhorns were undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country in January, but lost nine of their next 16 to slip to No. 8.
Also tumbling was Purdue, which was 24-3 and playing for a top seed as late as Feb. 24. Then, high-scoring forward Robbie Hummel tore up his right knee, and the Boilermakers lost two of their next five, including a 27-point loss to Minnesota. They dropped to the No. 4 seed in the South.
"Without Robbie Hummel in the lineup, they're a different team, no question about that," Guerrero said, echoing the same thought the selection committee had about Syracuse and Onuaku.
Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski are seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2004 and first national title since 2001. Led by Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils (29-5) have won 12 of their last 13 and will open Friday against the winner of the opening-round game.
The ACC was considered a bit down this season, but nowhere near as low as the Pac-10. The traditional power conference landed only two teams in the tournament, and regular-season champion Cal was the highest seed, at No. 8 in the South.
Meanwhile, the Mountain West landed four spots, led by regular-season champion New Mexico, which was seeded third in the East and watched the selection show in front of a packed crowd at The Pit.
In all, eight at-large slots went to teams from smaller conferences. That was double the number of last year. Among those left out were Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and Illinois, which lost to Ohio State in double overtime in the Big Ten tournament semifinals.
"It's a close game, a call, a basket going in and out, and they don't get the opportunity to be part of a special thing," Illini coach Bruce Weber said. "I feel bad for them. I reminded them we let some things go early and that put us in a bind."
Weber refused, however, to play the expansion card: One of this season's biggest topics has been the potential expansion of the field to 96 teams.
The at-large field has been widely dissed as one of the worst in recent memory.
Among the late entrants:
_Florida, a No. 10 seed in the West after missing the last two years following two straight titles. The Gators still have a 12-game tournament winning streak intact.
_Minnesota, a No. 11 seed despite a 90-61 loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
_UTEP (Conference USA) and Utah State (Western Athletic), a pair of 12th seeds who dominated their regular seasons but lost in upsets to Houston and New Mexico State in their conference tournament finals.
"Frankly, we felt that they were both outstanding teams," Guerrero said. "The committee had great respect for not only what they did in conference but also what they did on the road and that's why they got in."