That other team from the Bluegrass State won’t even get a chance to defend its 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 had to settle for a spot in the second-tier National Invitation Tournament.
“You’ve got to earn it each and every year,” said Mike Bobinski, the Xavier athletic director who chaired the selection committee.
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 campus on Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Cardinals will face either Liberty or North Carolina A&T in a second-round game Thursday. Kentucky plays an NIT game Tuesday — on the road because Rupp is taken for the NCAAs — at Robert Morris.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga (30-2) moving to the lead spot for the first time in school history. Bobinski said six teams were in the running for No. 1 seeds on the final weekend, the result of a season in which no school established itself as a clear-cut favorite.
Of course, only four spots were available at the head of each bracket. The top one went to fourth-ranked Louisville, which stumbled through a three-game losing streak in January after rising to No. 1 in the poll, and came up short in an epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame a few weeks later.
The Cardinals have ripped off 10 straight 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, but put on 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.”
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 has never 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. “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, known more as a football school, became the first ACC team to be denied a top seed after winning both the regular season and the conference tournament.
“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.
“If we had five spots, Miami would be there with us,” Bobinski said. “In the final analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. But it was very, very close.”
Duke, which had been atop the RPI rankings, 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 begins Tuesday with a pair of games in Dayton, Ohio. Everyone is trying to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, which starts 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.”
On Thursday, Gonzaga takes on 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 are hardly a tournament neophyte; this is their 15th straight 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.
“In our judgment that’s a very complete and very strong basketball team,” Bobinski said.
On Friday, Kansas stays close to home in Kansas City, Mo., facing Western Kentucky in a South Region second-round game, while Indiana opens in Dayton, Ohio, 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, along with LaSalle, Boise State and Saint Mary’s, beating out more recognized programs such as Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama and Virginia. Not to mention Kentucky.
In all, 11 of the 37 at-large bids went to teams outside the so-called power conferences.
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.
“They had no rough patches along the way, and their win over Ole Miss looks better at this point in time,” said Bobinski, who frequently cited road wins as a leading factor in who got bids.
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,” 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.”