The difficult task of selecting and seeding the NCAA men’s tournament became even tougher Sunday.
Upsets in the Southeastern Conference tournament, where Mississippi State blasted top-ranked Kentucky, and the Big Eight tournament, where Iowa State knocked off fifth-ranked Kansas, had the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee making adjustments till the last minute.
The results: Massachusetts, Kentucky, Connecticut and Purdue received No. 1 seeds in the 64-team field, which automatically includes 30 conference champions and leaves 34 at-large bids available. The committee found at-large spots for Maryland, Santa Clara, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Texas, but left Fresno State, Providence, Minnesota, Tulane and Oklahoma State - a Final Four team last season-out in the cold.
Now that the paperwork’s over, the guessing can really begin.
“You can’t say this team isn’t going to lose or that team can’t lose,” Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. “If you’re intelligent, you can’t pick a favorite in this thing. I’ve been watching college basketball for a long time and I know that.
“It’s going to be a real fun tournament.”
Several upsets in the smaller conferences’ tournaments - Santa Clara lost in the West Coast Conference, Wisconsin-Green Bay lost in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and Bradley was bumped out of the Missouri Valley Conference, for example - created unexpected at-large candidates and pitted them against non-champions of the larger conferences.
The big conferences didn’t suffer. The Atlantic Coast Conference put six schools in the tournament: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke, Maryland and Clemson. The Big Ten put in five - Purdue, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan, Indiana - and the Big East five - Connecticut, Georgetown, Villanova, Syracuse and Boston College. Conference USA, in its first year, was not eligible for an automatic bid but still had four make it: Cincinnati, Memphis, Louisville and Marquette. Tulane (18-9) did not make it.
Most recent coaches’ news conferences and teleconferences had been full of crowing, sniping and nitpicking about which leagues were the best. But in many ways the committee placed more emphasis on what teams did outside of their conference.
UCLA won the Pacific-10 with a record of 16-2 (23-7 overall), but runner-up Arizona (24-6, 13-5) got a higher seed and a chance to stay in its home West region - and even home state. The Wildcats will play in Tempe, Ariz., as the No. 3 seed against No. 14 Valparaiso. UCLA will be the No. 4 seed in the Southeast and play No. 13 Princeton in Indianapolis.
Kansas athletic director and basketball committee chair Bob Frederick said Arizona got the advantage “primarily based on the fact that in their non-conference schedule they were 11-1 versus the fourth-toughest schedule, and UCLA was 7-5 versus the 64th-toughest schedule.”
Maryland and Santa Clara - who will meet in the first round in the West Region as the No. 7 and No. 10 seeds, respectively - can thank difficult non-conference schedules for their berths.
Providence (17-11) missed out despite a 9-9 record in the Big East Conference, which was a darling of the media but ranked low by the Ratings Percentage Index computer.
Purdue won the lesser-regarded Big Ten conference for the third year in a row, yet came out with the No. 1 seed in the West Region, beating out teams such as Cincinnati and Kansas.
Kansas had been the front-runner for the No. 1 spot before losing to Iowa State.
Frederick said a deciding factor was how the three teams fared against other teams in the NCAA tournament field. Purdue had nine victories, Kansas eight and Cincinnati six. Purdue also won nine of its last 10 games, while Kansas and Cincinnati went 7-3 down the stretch.
Kentucky’s loss did not cost it a top seed in the Midwest Region, but it did knock the Wildcats out of the somewhat mythical No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. East No. 1 seed Massachusetts now has the privilege of playing No. 16 Central Florida, whose 11-18 record was the worst of any team to make the tournament. Kentucky faces San Jose State (13-16) in the Midwest in Dallas. This is the first time two teams with losing records are in the field in the same year.
Because the Southeast regional semifinals and final will be held on Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., the Wildcats could not be placed in the Southeast. (Except for the Final Four, teams cannot play an NCAA tournament game in any arena at which they have played more than three regular-season games.)
Also, teams can not play on the same day its school is hosting a tournament game. The Southeast and West regional games will be played on March 22 and 24, so Kentucky had to be placed in either the East or Midwest, whose regional semifinals and finals will be played on March 21 and 23.
Last year, Frederick and the committee drew criticism because Kansas got a No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region and a chance to play in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena - about a 45-minute drive from campus - despite losing to Iowa State in the Big Eight Conference tournament semifinals.
No breaks for the Jayhawks this year. And Minnesota (18-12, 10-8 Big Ten) was denied a bid even though athletic director McKinley Boston serves on the committee. Committee members must leave the room when schools or conferences they represent are being debated.