In the eyes of today’s NCAA selection committee, a game is a game, no matter whether it’s played in November, January or March.
That’s why some of the teams playing best heading into the NCAA tournament have crooked numbers by their names instead of 1s and 2s.
Louisville, Michigan State and UCLA, winners of the American Athletic, Big Ten and Pac-12 Conference tournaments, all received 4 seeds in what turned out to be the biggest — but not the only — head scratchers from Selection Sunday.
New Mexico was a 7 after winning the Mountain West.
Kentucky was an 8 after coming one point short of the overall top seed, Florida, in the SEC title game.
Four “is a very good line,” insisted Ron Wellman, chair of the selection committee. “Last year, two of the Final Four teams came from the 4 line. That could very well happen again this year,” he said.
Only Virginia, which wrapped up the ACC tournament Sunday to back up its regular-season title, seemed to get a significant bump from the conference tournaments that put the final stamp on resumes before the start of March Madness.
Wellman said the Cavaliers earned the top seed over Michigan and Villanova, who were also in the mix.
Louisville never was.
Asked to explain the low seeding of the defending national champion that has won 12 of 13 and rolled through the AAC tournament, Wellman explained that, unlike years past, the committee looks at each team’s entire schedule, without special weight given to the last 10 games.
“We look at the total body of work, everything they did from November to March,” he said. “Every time we scrubbed that seed, Louisville ended at the same place every time when compared to the people above them.”
The people above them in the unforgiving Midwest region include top-seeded and undefeated Wichita State, No. 2 Michigan and No. 3 Duke. Yes, that’s three of last year’s Final Four teams. This season’s national semifinals are April 5 in Arlington, Texas.
Michigan State and UCLA also won power conferences but weren’t exactly rewarded.
“Our conference was terrific, and that is also part of what we have to feel good about entering the tournament,” said Arizona’s Sean Miller, whose team got the No. 1 seed out West despite losing to the Bruins.
Of course, the numbers are just that — numbers. The real drama starts now — with the filling of the brackets and the playing of the games. While the teams play for a trophy, the rest of the world has a shot at the $1 billion Warren Buffett is offering for a perfect bracket.
Good luck with that one.
“There’s more good teams and less great teams,” said coach Bill Self of second-seeded Kansas. “The difference between a 2 seed and a 7 or 8 seed is as narrow as it’s ever been.”
The last four bubble teams in this year’s draw were 12th-seeded North Carolina State and Xavier, who play in the First Four on Tuesday, and 11th-seeded Iowa and Tennessee, who play Wednesday.
Left out of the tournament was SMU of the AAC — a team almost all the experts had securely in the bracket.
But not the folks in the conference room, who couldn’t overcome the Mustangs’ strength of schedule: 129.
“When I saw Louisville, I kind of figured that they didn’t have a lot of respect for our conference,” said coach Larry Brown. “But we only can blame ourselves, that’s the way I look at it.”
The committee handed out only seven at-large bids to mid-majors after they took 11 in each of the last two seasons.
The Big 12 led all conferences with seven teams, though winning the conference didn’t move Iowa State past the ‘3’ line.
Meanwhile, Kansas lost to Iowa State in the semifinals but remained a 2 seed because of its ranking in the RPI — No. 3. The Jayhawks have to get through the first weekend without center Joel Embiid, out with a back injury, but could face a third-round game against Mountain West champion New Mexico.
In the West, Arizona’s second game could come against eighth-seeded Gonzaga, which lost its second game as a No. 1 seed last year, or No. 9 Oklahoma State, which has one of the nation’s best players in Marcus Smart. The nation’s top scorer, Doug McDermott (26.9 points per game), is on the other side of that bracket with No. 3 Creighton.
On Virginia’s side of the East bracket is one team nobody wants to play come tournament time — No. 4 Michigan State, which hadn’t won back-to-back games since late January, but strung three together to win the nation’s second-toughest conference.
“You don’t get many teams that are talented, have inside and outside, show toughness, are together, have great chemistry,” coach Tom Izzo said. “I’ve said three times in my career that I thought we were good enough to get to a Final Four. I thought this team was next in line.”