Top seeds’ late losses stir college basketball intrigue

This time around, the drama began before the brackets even came out.

Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina gained top seeding for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday despite surprising weekend losses that brought more intrigue to the three-week, 67-game tournament better known as March Madness.

Michigan State claimed the other No. 1 seed and was the only one of the four top-billed teams to win its conference tournament. The Spartans defeated Ohio State 68-64 in the Big Ten title game — a contest widely viewed as the game for the last No. 1 seed, even if selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway wouldn’t go there.

“As it turned out, this game put the No. 1 seed into the field,” he said.

While No. 2 seeds Kansas, Duke, Missouri and Ohio State wonder whether they could have been rated higher, teams such as Drexel, Seton Hall, Mississippi State and Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington curse what might have been. Those bubble teams were left out, and they’re likely wondering how Iona, California and South Florida made it.

In the moments immediately after the brackets came out, the Iona-Drexel debate was getting the most traction.

“They weren’t the last team in,” Hathaway said of Iona. “They had a very good nonconference strength of schedule; they were 44. I know a lot of people are going to try to compare them to Drexel, and Drexel was well over 200. … We think we got that one right. Obviously, a lot of people will debate it, and that’s what makes it fun.”

There were 11 at-large teams from the so-called midmajor conferences, four more than last year and the most since 2004 when 12 made it. Though the committee claims not to consider a team’s conference when it picks the bracket, this nonetheless was a nod to the free-for-all this tournament can be. Last year, 4,000-student Butler finished as national runner-up for the second straight season, while Virginia Commonwealth, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, went from one of the last teams in to the Final Four.

Who might this year’s VCU be? It’s the question being asked across the country.

Kentucky (32-2) and Syracuse (31-2) were shoo-ins for top seeds — Hathaway all but said so last week — though their recent losses will add more guesswork to those millions of brackets being filled out at spring training sites, corporate board rooms and everywhere else across America.

“There were 112 teams with more than 20 wins,” Hathaway said. “We talked a lot about parity at the high end of the field and about quality throughout the field. Bottom line, it was about who did you play, where’d you play them, and how did you do?”

Some losses, though, were less important than others, and apparently, losing in the conference tournament didn’t cost Syracuse, Kentucky or North Carolina. Those losses could have created chaos, but the committee had the teams more or less cemented into top spots, with John Calipari’s Wildcats as the No. 1 overall seed. Kentucky will play in the South region and potentially could play six games without having to leave the Southeast.

“It’s one thing off our backs, 22 games in a row or whatever,” Calipari said of his team’s winning streak, which reached 24 games. “It’s done now. Now let’s just go onto these three weekends. We’ve got a weekend in front of us. It’s going to be a bear. Know what? Good. Throw anything you want to at us.”

The Wildcats will open the tournament in Louisville, Ky., against the winner of a first-round game between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, but it gets tougher from there. A possible second-round opponent is defending champion Connecticut, with No. 4 Indiana possibly waiting beyond that. Before Sunday, the Hoosiers — who return to the tournament after a four-year drought — were the only team to beat Kentucky this season.

Second-seeded Duke got consideration for moving up to a No. 1 seed, but an 18-point loss to North Carolina in the regular-season finale and a loss to Florida State in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament hurt. The Blue Devils are on the same side of the bracket with 11th-seeded Colorado, a team that got snubbed last year but won its way into the bracket this time by taking the Pac-12 tournament.

The Pac-12 was weak this season, placing only two teams and leaving Washington on the outside. This marked the first time the regular-season champion of a power conference got left out.

In the West, top-seeded Michigan State will begin its quest for its seventh Final Four since 1999 against No. 16 Long Island. The bottom of the bracket features No. 2 Missouri, which won the Big 12 tournament but got penalized for a nonconference schedule ranked in the 300s.

“That hasn’t changed at all over the years,” Hathaway said, when asked whether the committee rewards programs that beef up their schedules.

In the East region, No. 1 seed Syracuse comes in smarting from a loss to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals. Other matchups include No. 3 Florida State, which went 4-1 against Duke and North Carolina this season, against No. 14 St. Bonaventure, which was a surprise winner of the Atlantic-10 tournament and took away a bubble spot.

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