Selection Sunday told college basketball fans something about that NCAA Tournament that they should have realized from scanning the polls or the ubiquitous bracket projections: The Big East is the big boy on the block. For the first time, one league has three No. 1 seeds: Louisville (Midwest Region), Pittsburgh (East Region) and Connecticut (West Region), all from the Big East. Folks in the ACC, led by the fourth No. 1 seed, North Carolina (South Region), and the Big Ten have been touting the strength of their leagues every bit as much as the Big East has and Sunday evening's announcement validated that. They, like the Big East, have a seven-team contingent in the field of 65. Talk about a major factor. "We are ecstatic to be in the tournament as a No. 1 seed," said UNC coach Roy Williams, whose team opens against Radford on Thursday in Greensboro, N.C. "Our body of work for the season has been very good and we appreciate that the NCAA selection committee recognized and rewarded us for that." The Tar Heels, the prohibitive favorite
to win the title in the preseason and through much of the season, lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals Saturday. But then point guard Ty Lawson, the league's player of the year, was out with an injured right big toe. His status will be key for the Heels.
"Certainly if Carolina plays its A game, they'll be my choice to win it all," ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said. "Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson, those kids came back for a purpose and it wasn't just winning the ACC regular season. It was to win the national championship."
Not that Vitale is sold on a repeat of last year when all four No. 1 seeds made it to the Final Four, a first.
In fact, Division I Men's Basketball Committee chairman Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, said seeding the first two lines "caused us a lot of concern."
"They're very fine teams," he said, referring to the No. 1s as well as No. 2s Michigan State (Midwest), Memphis (West), Duke (East) and Oklahoma (South). "As a matter of fact, we probably spent more time seeding this year than we have in my five years on the committee, and a lot of that time was spent dealing with the first two lines."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said shortly after his Blue Devils beat FSU on Sunday to win the ACC tournament that his team deserved a great seed, "whether that's a one or two."
"This is a great year for college basketball," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. I do believe we earned a location through being ACC champions."
They did. Like UNC, the Blue Devils stay close to home, Greensboro. Louisville opens just up the road in Dayton, Ohio, as does Pittsburgh. Connecticut starts in Philadelphia. Ohio State is the No. 8 seed in the Midwest and gets one of the shorter trips for a lower seed, heading to Dayton, too.
Others will rack up some frequent flier mileage.
FSU, No. 5 in the East, will have to make a 2,300-mile trek to Boise, Idaho, to take on No. 12 Wisconsin on Friday.
Arizona State, the No. 6 seed in the South, and Arizona, No. 12 in the East and perhaps one of the last teams picked, open in Miami. Does that kind of travel make sense, especially at a time of financial woes?
"I think the fundamental issue is a very simple one: We have to put out a competitively and geographically balanced bracket," Slive said. "Two-thirds of the teams that play basketball are east of the Mississippi (River)."
Teams that feel snubbed likely include San Diego State, Creighton, Penn State, Saint Mary's, Auburn, Virginia Tech and Florida. The common thread was an undistinguished nonconference record.
"November and December are not exhibitions," said Slive, speaking for himself and not each committee member. "It's part of the body of work that also gives teams opportunities … to be able to differentiate themselves from other teams because they can get outside of their own neighborhood."
Which was vital this year.
Outside the Big East, that is.
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (81) 226-3347.