Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
Louisville is the top seed in the NCAA Tournament after a topsy-turvy season in college basketball, capped by another round of upsets over the weekend.
That other team from the Bluegrass State won’t even get a chance to defend its national title.
While the Big East champion Cardinals surged to the top of the 68-team bracket released Sunday, joined by fellow No. 1 seeds Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga, the school that won it all a year ago was left out of the field. Kentucky was hoping the committee would overlook a dismal performance in the Southeastern Conference tournament, but the Wildcats will have to settle for a spot in the second-tier National Invitation Tournament.
As if that’s not bad enough for Kentucky fans, Louisville (29-5) gets to rub a little more salt in its rival’s wounds by opening the tournament about 75 miles from home 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.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll this season, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga (30-2) moving to the lead spot for the first time in school history. Committee chairman Mike Bobinski said last week he thought as many as seven teams could be in the running for No. 1 seeds, the result of a season in which no school established itself as a solid favorite.
Of course, only four spots were available. The top one went to No. 4-ranked Louisville, which stumbled through a three-game losing streak in January after rising to No. 1 in the poll, then came up short in an epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame a few weeks later.
The Cardinals have ripped off 10 consecutive wins since, capped by a stunning turnaround in the championship game of the Big East tournament. They trailed Syracuse by 16 points early in the second half, then turned up the full-court pressure and won in a romp, 78-61.
The Big East, in its final year before the basketball-only schools break away to form their own league, led the way with eight teams in the NCAA field.
“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. “Our players showed incredible grit to come back from 16 points down. 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.”
No. 7 Kansas (29-5) moved up to take the second overall seed after an impressive run through the Big 12 tournament, punctuated by a 70-54 victory over rival Kansas State in the title game.
No. 3 Indiana (28-6) is third overall despite falling to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals.
The Zags claimed the last of the coveted No. 1 seeds, edging out Atlantic Coast Conference champion Miami.
The top spots are significant in at least one respect: A No. 1 never has lost to a 16th-seeded team.
“It’s going to happen. A 16 is going to beat a 1 eventually,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “Certainly we don’t hope that happens. I’ll pull for all the 1-seeds to make sure that doesn’t happen, but it will (eventually). There’s more parity this year than years past. 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.”
Miami became the first ACC team to be denied a top seed after winning both the regular-season and the conference tournament in the ACC.
“We try to control the things we can control,” coach Jim Larranaga said. “We have no control over that. Wherever they seed us, wherever they send us, whoever we play, we’ll get ready just like we do for every game.”
The Hurricanes were among the No. 2 seeds with conference rival Duke, Georgetown from the Big East and Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State.
“Miami had a tremendous year. They are a great basketball team,” Bobinski said. “If we had five spots, Miami would be there with us. We have great appreciation for the year Miami has had. In the final analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. But it was very, very close.”
Duke cost itself a shot at a No. 1 seed with an upset loss to Maryland in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament. Georgetown lost in the Big East semifinals and settled for a No. 2 as well, but Indiana was in no danger of dropping off the top line, despite its loss to the Badgers. Bobinski said the Hoosiers’ overall body of work was good enough to ensure they didn’t fall below one of the top four spots, no matter what happened Sunday.
The tournament will begin Tuesday with a pair of games in Dayton, Ohio. Everyone is trying to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, which will begin April 6 at the Georgia Dome.
If Louisville advances to the round of 16, there’s a chance Pitino would get to match up with Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford, a regional MVP on Pitino’s Kentucky team that made it to the Final Four two decades ago.
“I hope we get the opportunity. That would be nice,” Ford said. “I agree with the NCAA committee that they’re the No. 1 overall seed, after watching them play (Saturday) night and what they’ve done lately in the Big East. That’s, I would say, definitely the team to beat at this point.”
On Thursday, Gonzaga will play Southern in the second round of the West Regional at Salt Lake City. The Zags will be relishing their first No. 1 seed, though they hardly are a tournament neophyte; this is their 15th consecutive NCAA appearance, a mid-major program that has shown it can hang with the big boys.
This season, they come into the tournament on a 14-game winning streak. The Zags no longer are the plucky upstarts; they’re one of the favorites.
“In our judgment, that’s a very complete and very strong basketball team,” Bobinski said.
On Friday, Kansas will stay close to home in Kansas City, Mo., facing Western Kentucky in a South Regional second-round game, while Indiana will open in Dayton at the East Regional against either LIU-Brooklyn or James Madison, another of the “First Four” contests.
One thing is for sure in this most uncertain season: There won’t be a repeat champion.
A year after taking its eighth national title – only UCLA has won more – Kentucky’s success in restocking each year with the best one-and-done prospects hit a roadblock. The Wildcats never meshed as a unit, then lost the best of the freshmen when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury. An upset over Florida boosted their stock heading to the SEC tournament. But the Wildcats turned in a miserable performance in Nashville, Tenn., losing to Vanderbilt 64-48 in the quarterfinals.
“That was a tough way to finish if you’re going to impress upon us that you’re one of the best teams in the nation,” Bobinski said.
While the Big East had the most teams, followed by the Big Ten with seven, the less-glamorous leagues also did well. Middle Tennessee, for instance, was the last of the at-large teams to make the field, beating out power-conference teams such as Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama and Virginia – not to mention Kentucky.
Middle Tennessee lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference tournament after winning the regular-season title, which in previous years might have been enough to knock them out of the NCAAs.
Not this time. The Blue Raiders (28-5) are headed to the tournament, helped along by another upset when Mississippi knocked off Florida in the SEC championship game Sunday. Middle Tennessee had beaten the Rebels.
“We looked at a Middle Tennessee team that is a veteran team and their ability to win on the road,” Bobinski said. “They had no rough patches along the way, and their win over Ole Miss looks better at this point in time.”
After a season of upsets, Oklahoma State’s Ford doesn’t expect anything to change in the NCAAs.
“More than any year I can remember, I don’t think seeding really matters. I really don’t,” he said. “Probably if you’re a (No.) 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. I looked at some of those games. Even a lot of the No. 1 seeds have some tough second-round games.”
AP Sports Writers Jeff Latzke in Oklahoma City, Gary Graves in Lexington, Ky.; Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Mo.; and Aaron Beard in Greensboro, N.C., contributed to this report.
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Charlie Riedel/Associated Press file photo
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