What Have You Done Lately?

Joakim Noah
Florida Joakim Noah celebrates after winning the SEC title. (By Streeter Lecka -- Getty Images)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007

Faced with what he called the most difficult, top-to-bottom NCAA tournament selection process in his five years of experience, Gary Walters, the committee's chairman, relied on a simple creed yesterday: He favored teams that most recently had impressed him.

All four No. 1 seeds -- Florida, North Carolina, Ohio State and Kansas -- won their conference tournaments over the weekend. The committee bumped UCLA, the other team highly considered for a top seed, into a No. 2 position because the Bruins lost in the quarterfinals of the Pacific-10 tournament last week, Walters said.

"The top four teams distinguished themselves in the conference tournaments," said Walters, the Princeton athletic director who served as committee chair for the first time this year. "A lot of decisions really came down to the end."

Walters said the committee weighed the résumés of 104 teams that won more than 20 games, compared with the previous high of 78 such teams. Because of that parity, Walters acknowledged that this year's bracket likely would cause widespread debate and disappointment, particularly for near-miss schools such as Drexel and Syracuse. Walters said he had already heard some negative reaction early last night.

"When I started this process, I was 6 foot 4 and blond," Walters said. "Now I'm 5-11 with brown hair. The reality of our job is that it's a double-edged sword. Some teams are happy, and a lot of teams are unhappy."

A year after George Mason became the first team from a mid-major conference to reach the Final Four, mid-major schools were humbled yesterday. Only six mid-majors were awarded at-large berths, compared with 12 in 2004 and eight last year. Meantime, the ACC placed seven teams in the draw, including well-seeded Maryland (No. 4), Virginia (No. 4) and Virginia Tech (No. 5). Six schools each made it from the Big East, Pacific-10 and Big Ten conferences.

The committee chose Florida as the top overall seed, anointing the Gators a favorite to become the first repeat champions in the tournament since Duke in 1992. Florida, which starts the same five players as it did last season, opens against 16th-seeded Jackson State in New Orleans on Friday. If the bracket follows form, the Gators would play Maryland in the quarterfinals.

The rest of the No. 1 seeds also have experienced considerable NCAA tournament success. Kansas, which beat Texas in overtime yesterday for the Big 12 tournament crown, earned a top seed for the seventh time. Ohio State, led by freshman star Greg Oden, became a No. 1 seed for the third time on the same day it beat Wisconsin, 66-49, to win the Big Ten tournament.

North Carolina enjoyed a similarly ideal day. A few hours after winning its first ACC tournament title since 1998, North Carolina earned a No. 1 seed for a record 11th time. Still, the Tar Heels landed in what many analysts identified as the most difficult section of the bracket. Even though they stay in state to play the first two rounds in Winston-Salem, N.C., the Tar Heels' potential draw in the East Region includes No. 2-seeded Georgetown, No. 3 Washington State and No. 4 Texas -- all talented teams capable of making a run into the Final Four.

"We are extremely excited about our season and about earning a number one seed," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "We should have confidence from winning the ACC tournament. I'm pleased for our fans that we're staying in North Carolina. Hopefully, we'll give them a good showing."

Coaches across the country said yesterday that they expect plenty of upsets when the first rounds start in eight cities on Thursday and Friday. First-round action will include a few showdowns between major programs: Louisville plays Stanford on Thursday; Villanova plays Kentucky on Friday.

Walters joked last night that this year's bracket could cause more coaches to join the cries for the NCAA tournament to expand beyond 65 teams. About a dozen teams that believed they would earn selections are now likely headed for the National Invitation Tournament. Syracuse, considered a lock to make the field by some experts, instead became the first team ever left out after winning 10 games in the Big East regular season. Kansas State, Florida State, West Virginia and Air Force also just missed inclusion.

Drexel, from the Colonial Athletic Association, was left out despite nonconference wins at Syracuse, Villanova and Creighton. The committee instead gave an at-large bid to Old Dominion, Drexel's conference rival, because it had a superior in-league record.

"Every year when we look at selecting teams, we start with a clean slate," Walters said. "Once conference play is over, every team becomes an independent to us. Our job is to compare and contrast every team regardless of conference affiliation.

"This year, more than I've experienced before, that put more teams in play for consideration and added more complexity to the whole process."

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