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 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, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga (31-2) 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, 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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
The tournament begins Tuesday with a pair of games in Dayton, Ohio. Everyone is trying to get to Atlanta for the Final Four, which begins April 6 at the Georgia Dome.
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 program that has shown it can hang with the teams from the major conferences. This season, they come into the tournament on a 14-game winning streak.
The Zags are no longer 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 stays close to home in Kansas City, Mo., facing Western Kentucky in a South Regional second-round game, while Indiana opens in Dayton at the East Regional against either LIU Brooklyn or James Madison, which plays a “First Four” game.
One thing is for sure: There won’t be a repeat champion.
(9) Miami 87, North Carolina 77: At Greensboro, N.C., Shane Larkin scored a career-high 28 points, eight coming in the final 2 1/2 minutes, to help the Hurricanes (27-6) pull away late to beat the Tar Heels (24-10) and add their first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship to go with their first regular-season title.
(10) Ohio State 50, (22) Wisconsin 43: At Chicago, DeShaun Thomas scored 17 points and the Buckeyes (26-7) beat the Badgers (23-11) for their Big Ten-best fifth tournament title and third in the last four years.
Mississippi 66, (13) Florida 63: At Nashville, Tenn., Murphy Holloway scored 23 points and Marshall Henderson had 21 as the Rebels (26-8) gave coach Andy Kennedy his first NCAA tournament berth by upsetting the Gators (26-7) for the Southeastern Conference tournament title.
( 16) Saint Louis 62, (25) Virginia Commonwealth 56: At New York, Kwamain Mitchell scored 19 points, including a huge 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down, and tournament MVP Dwayne Evans added 16 to lead the Billikens (27-6) to their first Atlantic 10 tourney title with a win over the Rams (26-8).