The surprises start at the top of the NCAA tournament bracket: Virginia is a No. 1 seed.
Oh, some things went to form. Florida earned the top overall seed as expected and will be joined on the ‘1’ line by Wichita State and Arizona. But there were head-scratchers nearly everywhere else.
Last year’s national champion, Louisville, was seeded fourth in the Midwest despite playing well enough to be considered a No. 1 by many. And speaking of the Midwest – Wichita State and Michigan are there as well, making it three of last year’s Final Four participants all vying for one spot this year.
SMU, the team led on a renaissance by coaching lifer Larry Brown – nowhere to be found. And Michigan State, the team that geared things up in time to win the Big Ten tournament, is only a No. 4 seed.
The tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of First Four games, and things get going in earnest Thursday when 32 of the 64 teams in the main draw take to the floor. The Final Four is set for April 5 and 7 in Arlington, Texas.
In the end, the individual matchups mean much more than the numbers by a team’s name. Still, some of the numbers the selection committee came up with this year were a bit puzzling – yet another reason Warren Buffett felt perfectly comfortable fronting the insurance money to pay a $1 billion prize to anyone who can fill out a perfect bracket.
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, the chairman of the selection committee, said Virginia’s twin ACC championships – regular season and tournament – made the Cavaliers (28-6) the choice for a 1 seed over Michigan and Villanova, despite an RPI rating of 11.
“Virginia’s total resume was very impressive,” Wellman said. “They continued to impress us throughout the year.”
The last four bubble teams were 12th-seeded North Carolina State and Xavier, who play Tuesday, and 11th-seeded Iowa and Tennessee, who play Wednesday.
Sitting out was SMU – a team almost all the experts had securely in the bracket, but not the folks in the conference room, who couldn’t overcome the Mustangs’ strength of schedule: 129.
“When I saw Louisville (was a 4 seed), I kind of figured that they didn’t have a lot of respect for our conference,” Brown said. “But we only can blame ourselves, that’s the way I look at it.”
Led by Rick Pitino’s Cardinals, the new American Athletic Conference placed four teams in the tournament.
And while the committee didn’t show much love for the AAC, it did dole out plenty of at-large spots to the big conferences, while only seven spots went to the mid-majors after they took 11 in each of the last two seasons.
In the South, Kansas got lots of talk about a possible 1 seed, but ended up a 2 in part because of those nine losses. The Jayhawks have to get through the first weekend without lottery-pick center Joel Embiid, out with a back injury, but could face a third-round game against New Mexico. The Mountain West Conference tournament champions got a surprisingly low 7 seed.
“There’s more good teams and less great teams,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “The difference between a 2 seed and a 7 or 8 seed is as narrow as it’s ever been.”
In the West, Arizona’s second game could come against eighth-seeded Gonzaga, which lost its second game as a No. 1 seed last year, or No. 9 Oklahoma State, which has one of the nation’s best players in Marcus Smart. The nation’s top scorer, Doug McDermott (26.9 points per game), is on the other side of that bracket with No. 3 Creighton.
On Virginia’s side of the East bracket are two teams nobody wants to play come tournament time – No. 4 Michigan State and Harvard. Yes, No. 12 Harvard, which shook things up last season by knocking out New Mexico for its first tournament win in 102 years of basketball.