New-look NCAA tourney has familiar feel
Three more teams in this year’s edition of March Madness. Three more networks to cover it.
And the Big East will have its hooks in practically every nook and cranny of that new-look NCAA bracket.
The NCAA selection committee released its newfangled, 68-team draw Sunday and included a whopping 11 teams from the deepest conference in the nation.
Leading the way for the Big East was Pittsburgh, seeded first in the Southeast even though it didn’t win a game in the conference’s postseason tournament.
”It has Hall of Fame coaches, great programs with storied traditions and heritage,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said, a few minutes before his team became the 11th and final squad from the Big East to have its name announced on the selection show. ”It has athletic programs that understand the value of investing the dollars that are needed to run a topflight program.”
All 68 teams in the NCAA tournament are aiming for one destination — the Final Four in Houston, set for April 2. At the Las Vegas Hilton, Ohio State was made an early 7-2 favorite to cut down the nets at Reliant Stadium after the title game on April 4.
The Buckeyes (32-2) of the Big Ten were the top seed overall, with Kansas (32-2) of the Big 12 next, while defending champion Duke aced out another Big East team, Notre Dame, for the fourth and final top seed. Led by one of the country’s best guards, Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils (30-4) are trying to become the first team since Florida in 2006-07 to repeat as national champions.
The tournament got a facelift this year, including the addition of three more at-large teams that will open the tournament in what the NCAA is calling the ”First Four.” Those games — UAB (22-9) vs. Clemson (21-11) and Southern Cal (19-14) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (23-11) — will take place Tuesday and Wednesday.
Those, along with every other game of the entire tournament, will be aired in their entirety on four networks. Before the start of the season, TBS, TNT and TruTV joined CBS in signing a new, 14-year TV contract worth $10.8 billion — the price to be paid to air the games that make up the ingredients for America’s biggest office pool. The games used to all be shown on CBS, with the network deciding which part of the country got which games. Now, it’s the viewers who will make the choice.
But more teams, more TV and more money don’t solve every problem or erase every whiff of controversy.
As is always the case on Selection Sunday, there were plenty of head-scratchers — a list of teams that came out of nowhere to make it and other virtual shoo-ins that didn’t.
In the first category: Georgia (21-11), given a surprisingly high No. 10 seed despite losing twice to Alabama, a team that got left out. Many experts thought VCU, UAB and Clemson making the tournament at all were equally big surprises.
Among those snubbed were Virginia Tech (21-11), which has come close but missed for four straight years, and Colorado (21-13), which beat tournament teams Texas and Missouri once — and another one, Kansas State, three times.
”I was shocked,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. ”That’s the only word that comes to my mind. Just absolutely shocked we weren’t in the field.”
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, who led the selection committee, said members investigated the résumés of the teams ”more than I’ve ever done in my tenure on this committee.”
”Colorado is a good ballclub, and there were many good ballclubs we considered,” he said. ”They just didn’t quite get the votes to get in. That’s just the reality.”
Those that did make it include nearly three-quarters of the Big East — 11 of 16 teams from a conference that was formed in 1979 and gets credit for helping transform college basketball from something much smaller into a sport that produces the best single American sporting event this side of the Super Bowl.
Pitt (27-5) got the top seed in the Southeast — its second No. 1 in the last three years – despite losing to Connecticut in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament. Notre Dame (26-6) was given a No. 2 seed in the Southwest after losing to Louisville in the semifinals. And Connecticut (26-9) got handsomely rewarded for winning five straight games against that tough competition to win the tournament. The Huskies, who missed the NCAAs altogether last year, are a No. 3 seed in the West and will open Thursday against No. 14 Bucknell.
”We were a good team in the league, but to be a No. 3 seed . . . obviously our work this past week really paid off,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said.
The Big Ten placed seven teams, including a pair — Penn State and Michigan State — with 14 losses each. Led by freshman big man Jared Sullinger, Ohio State got rewarded with opening-week games down the road in Cleveland. The Buckeyes open against the winner between Texas-San Antonio and Alabama State, a pair of 16th-seeded teams that will also play in the First Four early in the week.
”There’s a lot of great teams, a lot of great players in our conference,” Buckeyes guard Jon Diebler said. ”It’s just unbelievable the amount of talent here, and I think the Big Ten should have a good showing in the tournament.”
The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference got five teams each while the Atlantic Coast only got four — a list that included the usuals, Duke and North Carolina, along with Florida State and Clemson, but not Boston College, which finished 20-12.
”I’ll put our top two against anybody. I’ll put our middle pack against anybody else’s middle pack,” BC coach Steve Donahue said. ”But, yet, there’s 11 from one league and 3 1/2, basically, from another. I don’t see the drastic difference. I’m being honest.”
Of the 37 at-large teams, 30 came from the top six conferences and seven came from the so-called mid-majors — the conferences that supply the underdogs and unknowns that have turned the NCAA tournament into what it is. The seven were one fewer than last year, even though there were three more spots available.
”It was more difficult, it really was, because there was so many good teams out there,” Smith said of the selection process.
Louisville and Morehead State are 130 miles apart in Kentucky, but will travel to Denver for their second-round matchup.
UNLV coach Lon Kruger leads the eighth-seeded Rebels against his old team, Illinois, in an 8 vs. 9 matchup in the Southwest.
Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State (32-2) is in the same region as Michigan, meaning Aztecs coach Steve Fisher may have to face the school he left in controversy.
Last year’s national runner-up, Butler, closed out an up-and-down season by winning its conference title and was rewarded with a No. 8 seed. Butler (23-9), the team from the 4,500-student campus that came two points short of winning it all last year, will play Old Dominion in its first game, but could face Pittsburgh in the second.
The East looks like the toughest region, maybe in part because that’s where four of the 11 Big East teams were sent, including 11th-seeded Marquette (20-14), the only team from the conference that had to sweat out the selection show.
The Southeast could be the most wide open. No. 2 Florida lost by 16 to Kentucky in the SEC tournament final Sunday and while No. 3 BYU may have the player with the best name — Jimmer Fredette — the Cougars have not been the same since losing leading rebounder Brandon Davies, who violated the school’s honor code last month. They lost 72-54 to San Diego State in Saturday’s conference title game.
This year marks the return of UCLA, Arizona and North Carolina, a trio of perennials that missed the tournament last year and led many experts to call the 2010 field one of the weakest of all time.
That tournament, however, turned out to be one of the best — filled with exciting, close games and ending with a halfcourt shot by Butler’s Gordon Hayward that bounced off the glass and nicked the rim while the buzzer was sounding — denying the Bulldogs a perfect ending.
But the pundits are at it again. They’re pointing to five at-large teams with 14 losses (Marquette, USC, Penn State, Michigan State, Tennessee), which is only one fewer than in the combined history of the entire tournament since it was expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
They’re wondering how the committee could favor Georgia, UAB, VCU and the rest over the Colorados and Virginia Techs of the world.
Other surprising snubs went to St. Mary’s (24-8, but lost to Gonzaga in final of the West Coast Conference tournament), Alabama (won the SEC West and beat Georgia twice) and Harvard (beat Colorado, lost to Princeton by one in the Ivy League tiebreaker game and ranked 32 in the RPI ratings that are used as a guideline.)
After his team’s snub, St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett might have become the first in history to believe that college football, with its widely derided Bowl Championship Series, has a better postseason formula than college basketball.
”As a coach, as players, all you want to know is that you’re given a fair deal,” Bennett said. ”You need to go by the numbers, exactly like they do in the BCS.”
Others felt there needed to be a bit more expertise in the room where the teams’ fates are decided.
”There are some people on the committee who don’t know if the ball’s round,” said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. ”These are bad decisions.”