An injury hurts as much as a loss in the days before the brackets are drawn up for March Madness. Syracuse endured both and will have to rack up some major airplane time to make a run to the Final Four.
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Kansas, Kentucky and Duke won their conference tournaments and the top seeding that went with them when the selection committee rolled out its 65-team NCAA tournament bracket Sunday.
The Orange, meanwhile, also got a No. 1 seed, but was ranked fourth of the four top teams and sent West — the result of 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.
Syracuse’s road to the Final Four, set for April 3-5 in Indianapolis, will have to go through Salt Lake City, a 2,100-mile trek from home.
“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.”
America’s largest, three-week office pool starts getting sorted out Tuesday with an opening-round game between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop. The tournament goes into full swing Thursday, with Kansas the overall No. 1 seed.
The Big East led the field with eight teams, tying its own record and marking the third time the conference has put that many teams in the tournament.
But winning the toughest conference’s regular-season title wasn’t the accomplishment it might have been for Syracuse. The Orange (28-4) lost to Georgetown in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. That pushed Syracuse down, below Duke, which was expected to vie with West Virginia for the final No. 1 spot.
Winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament helped Duke vault over Syracuse and the Mountaineers.
“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 saw its NCAA-leading string of appearances snapped at 25 years.
It will mark the first time since 1966 that all five of those big-name schools failed to make the tournament.
“It is strange because obviously those are formidable teams with great traditions,” Guerrero said. “But I believe it’s reflective of the culture of college basketball this year.”
Now holding the longest current streak is Kansas (32-2), making its 21st straight appearance and coming into 2010 as the early 2-1 favorite in Vegas to win its second national title in three years.
Leading the Jayhawks in the Midwest Region are Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, two key pieces in the team’s 2008 title run. The Jayhawks earned the overall No. 1 seed based on an 18-1 record against Big 12 foes, which includes three wins over Kansas State, a team in the mix for a top seed until falling to KU in the conference final Saturday.
Among Kansas’ competition in the Midwest are Ohio State, Georgetown and last year’s national runner-up, Michigan State.
“It will be a good recruiting mailout this week,” coach Bill Self said of the No. 1 overall seed. “After you look at the bracket, you say, ‘Well, I don’t think we had a lot of favors done for us.'”
Kansas and Kansas State were two of seven Big 12 teams in the draw. Another so-called power conference, the Pac-10, struggled all year and got punished. Only two teams — tournament champion Washington and regular-season champion Cal — made it. The Huskies got an 11th seed in the East.
Those two spots were only half of what the Mountain West Conference received, 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 — a 75-74 overtime loser to Kentucky in the SEC tournament final — and Illinois, which is 19-14 after a double-overtime loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament semis.
“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, an idea supported by some coaches but not so much by pundits.
“This is the weakest at-large field in the history of the tournament,” ESPN’s Jay Bilas said, leading to the question of whether there were truly another 32 teams that were worthy.
Those at-large teams included Florida, a No. 10 seed in the West after missing the last two years following two straight titles.
“It was a stressful 48 hours not knowing if we were in or out,” forward Chandler Parsons said.
Tubby Smith and Minnesota got in as a No. 11 seed, and UTEP made it as a 12th seed despite losing the Conference USA final to Houston, which stole a spot.
Another spoiler was New Mexico State, which defeated Utah State in the Western Athletic final. Utah State made it anyway, as a No. 12 seed that gets to play its first games in nearby Spokane, Wash. — not a bad reward for one of the very last bubble teams.
Last week, Guerrero said the committee wouldn’t weigh teams’ performances in their last 12 games as heavily as in the past. How closely the committee toed that line, however, was still in question.
Not up for debate was the reality that key injuries at tournament time make a difference to the committee.
Onuaku hasn’t practiced since he was hurt, and Boeheim didn’t paint an optimistic picture for the first week.
“I’m looking at it positive, taking it day by day,” Onuaku said. “It’s getting better, so I’m hoping for the best.”
Purdue, meanwhile, was 24-3 and in contention 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 the last five, including a 27-point loss to Minnesota. They dropped to the No. 4 seed in the South.
“To have integrity in the field, you’ve got to place them in a place that’s appropriate without Robbie Hummel,” Guerrero said. “Without Robbie Hummel in the lineup, they’re a different team, no question about that.”
Led by freshman John Wall, Kentucky (32-2) won its 26th SEC tournament and earned a top seed to try for its eighth national title.
In his first year with the Wildcats, John Calipari became the first coach to post five straight 30-win seasons, and he’ll need six more to bring the first title back to the Bluegrass State since 1998.
That’s a big task for a team that has three freshmen — Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe — among its top four scorers.
“We’re one of the youngest teams. 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.”
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.
“Our committee felt there was some value in that kind of season,” Guerrero said. “In the end, we just felt that kind of season Duke had, winning the conference, having some great wins and, of course, just winning the postseason tournament carried the day.”