NCAA tourney top seeds announced
The madness is officially here — though any college hoops fan can tell you, it's been here all season long.
The wildest college basketball season in recent memory may be headed to an equally crazy NCAA Tournament, and Selection Sunday already sprung a surprise as the top seeds were announced.
Despite the fact that members of the selection committee admitted after the brackets were revealed that Indiana entered the weekend as the only sure-fire No. 1 seed in the field, Louisville is instead the No. 1 overall seed after winning the Big East Tournament, and will play the first-round winner of Liberty and North Carolina A&T in the Midwest. Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the polls, is the top team in the West and will face Southern in Salt Lake City.
Indiana is the No. 1 seed in the East and will face the winner of LIU-Brooklyn and James Madison in Dayton, Ohio. But Kansas is a surprise as the No. 1 seed in the South. The Jayhawks will face Western Kentucky.
Will this be the year a No. 1 seed falls to a No. 16? If the tournament is anything like the regular season, when the top team fell seven times, you can almost bet on it.
Four teams turned out to be what they thought they were: top seeds as they gear up for a run through the NCAA tournament they hope will end at the Final Four in Atlanta.
Who might this year's Butler or VCU be?
It's the question being asked across the country, as those $10 and $20-a-pop brackets start getting inked in at spring training sites, corporate board rooms and everywhere else across America. The tournament starts Tuesday with first-round games and gets into full swing Thursday and Friday, with 64 teams in action.
And the Kentucky Wildcats? The defending champs did not make it. Neither did SEC rivals Tennessee and Alabama.
As for the top dogs ...
MIDWEST: Louisville (No. 1 overall seed)
The Louisville Cardinals have shown that they are comfortable being front-runners in their season-long quest to go farther than last year's Final Four appearance.
Now, they enter the NCAA tournament as the overall No 1 seed. A familiar position for this squad, which was ranked No. 2 to start the season and was the preseason favorite to win the Big East.
Last year Louisville got hot during a surprising run in the Big East tournament and continued rolling to the Final Four.
Not this year.
The Cardinals (29-5) are on a 10-game winning streak and have captured their second straight Big East championship. Louisville opens play Thursday at Rupp Arena, about 75 miles east of its campus, against the winner of Tuesday's game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty.
''We are ecstatic to be the number one 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 after the team returned home Sunday from New York, minutes before their seeding was announced.
''We know we will be challenged right away in one of the toughest brackets that I've seen in quite some time. I think our guys are up for the challenge. We look forward to it.''
Louisville stumbled in January, losing three straight after rising to No. 1 in the poll. An epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame followed a few weeks later, a game Louisville laments letting slip away in the final minute of regulation.
The Cardinals haven't lost since.
They enter the tournament off a 17-point win over Syracuse in the Big East final after trailing by 16 points with 15 minutes remaining. More importantly, Louisville begins a quest for a third NCAA title on the same roll that led to last year's Final Four berth before the Cardinals' semifinal loss to archrival Kentucky, which went on to win its eighth championship.
Stinging as that defeat was for Pitino, he has said it also revealed his team's potential for this season. And save for that midseason lull, the Cardinals have carried out their coach's vision.
They have ranked in the top three in turnovers per game and turnover margin thanks to a trademark trapping defense that has made things easier on the offensive end. Junior Russ Smith (18.1 points, 2.0 steals per game) and senior Peyton Siva (10.0 points, 2.2 steals, 5.9 assists) have been the most effective thieves, but everybody has bought into the program and contributed.
Those two also key an offense that doesn't shoot well at times but can be dangerous when it gets going. A lot depends on the mercurial Smith, nicknamed ''Russdiculous'' by Pitino because of his extremes in play.
Siva, twice named the Big East tournament's most outstanding player, is the veteran facilitator who can be a good option when his shooting is on. Center Gorgui Dieng (10.0 points) has developed a nice jumper to go along with solid rebounding (9.9) and shot blocking (2.5), while Chane Behanan continues growing as a power forward.
Louisville's main question is whether it has enough offense to make another deep run. The Cardinals are most effective in transition and have sometimes struggled when forced to play a halfcourt game. But a lot of work has yielded improved against zone defenses.
Siva and Dieng have also shown a knack for getting into foul trouble.
Unlike last season, Louisville returns with everyone healthy. Dieng, who missed seven games with a broken left wrist, has been able to hone his jumper as has Luke Hancock, who began the season with shoulder injuries.
The Cardinals also seem to have found their resolve after the Notre Dame loss. It took Pitino challenging them to win the final seven regular season games, but they've responded with a streak that has them with the target on their backs.
''I agree with the NCAA committee that they're the No. 1 overall seed, after watching them play last night and what they've done lately in the Big East,'' said Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, 1993 Southeast Regional MVP on Kentucky's Final Four team coached by Pitino. The Cowboys could face Louisville if both schools advance to the Round of 16.
The way the Cardinals are playing right now, they appear to be in good shape of holding up their end of that potential matchup. Ford certainly believes so.
''That's, I would say, definitely the team to beat at this point,'' he said. ''It would be nice to have the opportunity to make it that far and have a chance to play.''
SOUTH: Kansas (No. 2 overall seed)
Elijah Johnson is the first to admit there have been far more talented teams to play at Kansas, even in the four years he's been part of the program.
Turns out it was still talented enough to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Big 12 champions received a spot on the top line for the fifth time in seven years on Sunday, and will open play in the South Region against Sun Belt champion Western Kentucky at the Sprint Center in nearby Kansas City, Mo.
''You might hear this from Coach's mouth, but this isn't the most talented team we've had,'' said Johnson, a senior guard, who has been a part of three teams to earn No. 1 seeds.
''This is a more humble team, a more - I don't really know the word to explain it, but yeah, I don't feel like those old teams,'' Johnson said. ''I feel like we're not the most talented, so we're willing to go out there and work hard, and do whatever we need to do.''
Despite losing Big 12 player of the year Thomas Robinson, along with several other important pieces from last year's national runners-up, the Jayhawks (29-5) still managed to win a share of their ninth straight regular-season Big 12 title, and then captured the tournament crown, too.
That run over the weekend, capped off by a victory over Kansas State on Saturday night, may have been what ultimately pushed the Jayhawks to the top line on the bracket.
''We didn't know what to expect,'' Johnson said, ''but to hear someone call you as a 1 seed, it means you're one of the best-performing teams around.''
The NCAA tournament selection committee claims it doesn't consider potential matchups when seeding the bracket, but it may at least have a sense of humor when it comes to the Jayhawks.
In the round of 32, Kansas could face former coach Roy Williams and eighth-seeded North Carolina, whom they beat in a regional final last year. The Tar Heels play Villanova on Friday.
Gazing into the round of 16, the Jayhawks could see fifth-seeded VCU, the same mid-major darling that knocked then-No. 1 seed Kansas out of the NCAA tournament two years ago. If the Rams beat Akron in their opener, they would advance to play the winner of Michigan-South Dakota State.
''They probably do have a sense of humor,'' said the Jayhawks' Jeff Withey. ''But like I said, I don't even want to think about it, to be honest. I want to stay focused, because during this time of the season, even if you get off focus a little bit, it can be the last game you play.''
Kansas should have an advantage by beginning the tournament at the Sprint Center, where it is 6-0 this season. The Jayhawks beat Washington State and Saint Louis in an early season tournament, and Oregon State during the regular season, before winning three times in the Big 12 tournament.
''It can go both ways,'' Jayhawks coach Bill Self said of playing close to home. ''I think there can be some extra distractions. We have to work with our guys on that. But we get a chance to play in a building that we're very familiar with, and where we've had some success.
''I think the positives far outweigh the negatives.''
Self had said he wouldn't plead with the selection committee for a No. 1 seed, mainly because he didn't think they'd listen, but also because he's had mixed success with it.
The top-seeded Jayhawks lost to UCLA in a regional final in 2007, and then won their fifth national title the following season by beating Memphis in overtime. But they were also ousted by No. 9 Northern Iowa in the 2010 tournament, played not far away in Oklahoma City.
''These guys play at a place where there are expectations all the time,'' Self said. ''You lose two or three in a row and it's disaster. Who would have thought this team that lost three in a row in early February would be the No. 2 overall seed in March?''
The 16th-seeded Hilltoppers (20-15), led by sophomore guard T.J. Price, will be playing in the NCAA tournament for the second straight year. They earned the automatic berth out of the Sun Belt by beating Florida International in their conference championship game.
Western Kentucky is 4-3 in the NCAA tournament since 2008.
''When I was at Illinois, we played Western Kentucky in the first round,'' Self said, recalling a 2003 matchup won by his fourth-seeded Illini. ''I do have some experience with the school, and obviously they're capable of beating anyone.''
EAST: Indiana (Overall No. 3 seed)
Indiana was considered the Midwest's top team most of the season.
The Hoosiers won't be spending much time there during the NCAA tournament.
With three losses in their last six games, the Big Ten regular-season champs still earned one of the four coveted No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA tournament but lost the chance to play an hour from campus in the regional round. Instead, they got shipped to the East Region.
The selection committee did give Indiana a consolation prize by sending them to Dayton for second and third-round games later this week. If they win those, they will be off to Washington.
''We don't worry about it too much, there's Indiana fans all over the country,'' sophomore center Cody Zeller said.
The switch could actually work to the Hoosiers' advantage, too.
Junior swingman Victor Oladipo played high school basketball in Maryland and he met President Barack Obama when he was in high school. If the Hoosiers win their first two, it could set up a reunion between one of the nation's most improved players and the nation's most prominent basketball fan. Not that Hoosiers are getting ahead of themselves.
''If we don't win in Ohio, then there is no D.C. to worry about,'' Oladipo said.
The Hoosiers (27-6) will open Friday against the winner of the Long Island-Brooklyn-James Madison game in Dayton, about 170 miles from campus. A victory would send them into a third-round matchup against either eighth-seeded North Carolina State or ninth-seeded Temple on Sunday.
It's the first time since 1993 that Indiana has earned a No. 1 seed.
But the celebration this year was far more subdued than the one in 2012, which they watched on a big-screen television inside the new addition at the football stadium. This time, they kept the party private and waited until about 30 minutes after the selection show ended to start talking.
''It was kind of neat figuring out where we were going instead of watching the show and not knowing if was an in or out type of thing,'' Zeller said.
The selection will not be embraced in the Hoosier State, where the selection committee had been meeting since Wednesday.
When the Hoosiers clinched their first outright league title with a win Sunday at Michigan, many Indiana fans figured the Hoosiers' road to the Final Four would run through Indianapolis. The Midwest Region's Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games will be played at the home of the Indianapolis Colts.
The reason may be the Hoosiers' surprisingly poor finish. After starting 24-3, spending the whole season ranked in the top five and holding the No. 1 spot for more weeks than any other team this season, Indiana went 3-3 in its last six games barely beating the Wolverines when a buzzer-beating tip rolled off the rim. Then came their worst loss of the season in Saturday's Big Ten tourney semifinals to Wisconsin.
And when Louisville captured the Big East tourney title Saturday night, the stage was set to keep Louisville about 100 miles from its campus for the regional round instead of the Hoosiers.
''It's unfortunate we lost the other day, we didn't want to do that. We've got to get things fixed,'' Oladipo said. ''We've got to get back to playing Indiana basketball the right way, keeping our edge and staying together.''
Coach Tom Crean was expected to address the media later Sunday evening.
WEST: Gonzaga (Overall No. 4 seed)
Gonzaga finished the regular season at No.1 and will head into the postseason the same way.
After a perfect run through the West Coast Conference regular season and tournament, the Zags received the top seed in the West Region of the NCAA tournament.
Gonzaga, which went 26-2, opens the tournament against No. 16 seed Southern University in Salt Lake City on Thursday.
Get past the Jaguars and the Zags will face a difficult road in a bracket that includes second-seeded Ohio State, Kansas State, New Mexico and Arizona.
One of the more intriguing second round games of the NCAA tournament will take place in West: dynamic Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson against the grinding style of Wisconsin in Kansas City on Friday.