The posturing and politicking is finished. The field has been chosen, the bracket has been set and the madness of March has finally arrived in college basketball.
Having trouble making sense of it all? No problem. Here are 10 things you should know about this year’s NCAA tournament:
FIRST FOUR — The NCAA tournament hasn’t started on Thursday for years, but there may be more interest than ever in the four “First Four” games played Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. Sure, Albany and Mount St. Mary’s are probably playing for a chance to be whipped by overall No. 1 seed Florida, and the winner of Cal Poly-Texas Southern will have to face unbeaten Wichita State. But the other two games feature some notable names: Iowa and Tennessee are vying to be the No. 11 seed and North Carolina State and Xavier will battle to be the No. 12 seed in the South Region.
“It didn’t matter what seed or where we were going, I’m just excited for the opportunity,” said the Hawkeyes’ Aaron White. “We’re in. That’s all you can ask for.”
LAST FOUR — The drama of Selection Sunday often centers on the teams that were left out, and this year was no different. SMU didn’t have consecutive losses until ending the regular season with defeats to Louisville and Memphis, but a loss to Houston in its AAC tournament opener bumped the Mustangs from the NCAA tournament to the NIT. Florida State, Green Bay and Georgetown were also left hanging when the final teams were placed in the bracket.
REGION TO WATCH — Even coaches who landed in other regions pointed to the Midwest as the most brutal road to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. Along with the top-seeded Shockers, you have two of the hottest teams in the country in Louisville and Michigan — who played in last year’s national title game — and perennial powerhouses Duke and Kentucky.
“You can analyze it a lot of different ways,” said Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, whose team will face Kentucky in the 8-9 matchup on Friday in St. Louis. “We’re going to have to play and it doesn’t matter who you play. You’ve got to play good basketball.”
BEWARE THE 12 SEEDS — Just about every year, it seems a No. 12 seed rises up to knock off a No. 5 seed. Three of them did it last year in Oregon, Mississippi and California. And each of the 12-5 games in this year’s tournament offers reason to be wary. Stephen F. Austin, which plays VCU, hasn’t lost since November. North Dakota State heads into its game against Oklahoma featuring a dynamic playmaker in Taylor Braun. The winner of North Carolina State-Xavier will have some momentum heading into a game against No. 5 seed Saint Louis. And Ivy League champ Harvard has won eight straight as it prepares to face Cincinnati.
IF THE SHOE FITS — Sure, the notion of a “Cinderella” has become cliche, but it’s also one of the endearing elements of the NCAA tournament. So is there a team seeded lower than 12 that has a chance to make some noise? How about Tulsa, led by Danny Manning, in its opener against UCLA? After all, they called his 1988 championship Kansas team “Danny and the Miracles” for a reason. And don’t forget the Golden Hurricanes upset the Bruins in the first round of the 1994 tournament.
“UCLA is a very talented team,” Manning said. “They ended up winning the (Pac-12) tournament title. They played very well in that game and they’ve got really good players that I’ve seen and watched for a very long time. We’ve got our hands full, but I like the matchup.”
POTENTIAL REMATCHES — The NCAA selection does its best to make sure teams that faced each other in the regular season, such as conference rivals, don’t meet early in the NCAA tournament. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tasty potential rematches. Kansas could face New Mexico, a team it beat in December, if both win their opener in the South Region. Saint Joseph’s could get a chance to avenge a 30-point whipping by No. 2 seed Villanova in the third round, and fifth-seeded Saint Louis could get another crack at Wichita State in the Sweet 16.
BLUE BLOODS — There are 14 schools that have won multiple NCAA championships. All but two of them — Indiana and San Francisco — are in this year’s field. The list is topped by UCLA, the fourth seed in the South, with its 11 national titles. The Bruins are joined there by No. 1 seed Florida and second-seeded Kansas. Oklahoma State won its titles as Oklahoma A&M, and is the No. 9 seed in the West. Cincinnati, UConn, North Carolina and Michigan State inhabit the East, and Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina State resides in the Midwest.
NEWCOMERS — There are two newcomers to this year’s party, Cal Poly and North Carolina Central. Cal Poly got in despite its 13-19 record when reserve guard Ridge Shipley hit a 3-pointer with 13.7 seconds left for a 61-59 victory over Cal State Northridge in the Big West title game, and NC Central punched its ticket in only its seventh season in Division I by beating Morgan State 71-62 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game.
“It’s a testament to what these guys do — emotional stamina and mental toughness,” said Cal Poly’s Chris Eversley. “It started with the coaching staff and the guys we brought in — guys that were willing to buy into our program both offensively and defensively.”
ODDS — It was no surprise that Florida was installed as the early favorite to win the national championship by the Las Vegas casinos. Several that put out lines immediately after the bracket was revealed had the Gators at 4-1. Michigan State, Arizona and Kansas were in the next tier of favorites, followed by a group that included Wichita State, Virginia, Duke, Syracuse and Louisville.
HOME COOKING — Several teams are going to feel right at home for their opening games of the tournament. And several teams are going to feel like it’s a road game. Florida plays the Albany-Mount St. Mary’s winner in Orlando, and UCLA takes on Stephen F. Austin in San Diego. Syracuse heads down the road to Buffalo for its game against Western Michigan. Baylor will face Nebraska in San Antonio, Wisconsin plays American in Milwaukee, and Duke will open against Mercer in Raleigh, N.C.
“We’re just excited to be in the tournament, first of all, and then being a 2 seed in Milwaukee, I mean, it’s going to be playing close to home, just means you did something good this year,” said the Badgers’ Josh Gasser. “You get rewarded for what you’ve done.”