Louisville's Russ Smith (2), Gorgui Dieng (10) and Luke Hancock, center, celebrate Saturday with the team after their 78-61 win over Syracuse in an NCAA college basketball championship game at the Big East Conference tournament in New York.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Louisville earned the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament Sunday, while Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga also received No. 1s after a topsy-turvy regular season and another round of weekend upsets.
Then there’s that other team from the Bluegrass State. Kentucky won’t even get a chance to defend its 2012 national title, denied a spot in the 68-team field when the brackets came out thanks to an up-and-down season.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll, capped by the West Coast Conference champion Zags (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.
Of course, only four spots were available. It was No. 4-ranked Louisville (29-5) that was picked to lead the field after sharing the Big East regular-season title, then pulling off a stunning turnaround to beat Syracuse in the final of the conference tournament for its 10th straight victory. The Cardinals came back from a 16-point deficit early in the second half for a 78-61 romp.
No. 7 Kansas (29-5) moved up to take the second overall seed after an impressive run through the Big 12 tournament, capped by a 70-54 victory over rival Kansas State in the title game. No. 3 Indiana (28-6) is third overall in the field 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 Hurricanes, who became the first ACC team to be denied a top seed after winning both the regular season and the conference tournament, were among the No. 2 seeds with ACC 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.”
The tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of games in Dayton. Everyone is trying to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, which begins April 6 at the Georgia Dome.
On Thursday in the Midwest Regional, Louisville gets to rub salt in Kentucky’s wounds by playing at Rupp Arena against either Liberty or North Carolina A&T, who meet in one of the “First Four” games in Dayton. That same day, Gonzaga takes on Southern in the second round of the West Regional at Salt Lake City.
On Friday, Kansas will stay close to home in Kansas City, Mo., to face Western Kentucky in a South Regional second-round game. Indiana, meanwhile, opens in Dayton, Ohio, 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, and will have to settle for a bid from the second-tier National Invitation Tournament.