Three Big East Teams, UNC Take Lead Billing for NCAAs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009; Page F03

For the first time since it started seeding teams in 1979, the NCAA has awarded No. 1 seeds to three teams from the same conference, underscoring the power of a Big East Conference that has been hailed much of the season as the strongest league in recent memory.

Louisville was selected as the top overall seed in the 65-team bracket that was unveiled last night. The Cardinals, who won the Big East's regular season and tournament titles, join conference cohorts Connecticut and Pittsburgh and ACC regular season champion North Carolina as top seeds.

"I don't think anyone will argue with the Big East getting three number one seeds," Maryland Coach Gary Williams said. "It was good to see North Carolina get one; they deserve it because they won the regular season title. I think Duke could have been there pretty easily. They went on a quiet run late in the season."

Mike Slive, the chairman of the 10-member NCAA tournament selection committee, said the committee spent more time on seeding this year than at any time during his five years on the committee, and that a considerable amount of time was spent on teams in contention for No. 1 or No. 2 seeds. Each morning last week, while committee members were sequestered in the Westin hotel in downtown Indianapolis, they spent hours reviewing the credentials of the top seed candidates before doing anything else.

Oklahoma and Michigan State squandered chances at a No. 1 seed with losses in their respective conference tournaments. Other highly rated teams, including Connecticut, Pittsburgh and North Carolina, also did not make their respective conference tournament finals, making for a wild week and an ever-changing tournament picture for the selection committee to assess.

"Those teams on the first two lines caused us a lot of concern," Slive said. "It's not about what teams on the second line did not do. It's about what [credentials] teams on the first line have."

Duke ranked in the top three in strength of schedule and overall in the Ratings Percentage Index, the mathematical measurement of a team's strength that the selection committee uses to help determine seeds. The Blue Devils also earned a convincing victory over Florida State in yesterday's ACC tournament final.

But the committee decided to give a top seed to Connecticut. The Huskies beat eight top 50 teams and amassed a 9-1 road record. Two of their losses were against Pittsburgh, and another came against Syracuse in an epic six-overtime Big East tournament game.

The committee kept a close eye on conference tournaments across the country, but committee members have stressed that it's the entire body of work from the season that determines a team's tournament merits. Slive said during a CBS interview yesterday afternoon that handing out the last four at-large berths was "painful" and that the final selection was a "gut-wrenching" decision.

Handing out 34 at-large berths became particularly challenging after as many as four slots for at-large teams were taken away because of upsets in conference tournaments. Teams such as Cleveland State, Temple and Southern California, which otherwise were not in strong position as at-large candidates, earned automatic berths by winning conference tournaments. And yesterday afternoon, Mississippi State beat Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference tournament, which meant that three SEC teams would go to the NCAAs instead of two.

Every team's résumé is compared with résumés of every other at-large candidate across the country. But the teams competing for the last few at-large berths largely fell into two categories: mid-majors with a lot of victories, mostly against middling competition, and high-profile teams with double-digit losses and several quality victories.

Slive did not say which team was the final at-large selection but said that Arizona was among the final teams that earned at-large berths. Arizona moved squarely on the tournament bubble following a loss to Arizona State in the Pacific-10 Conference tournament. The Wildcats were 6-10 against top 50 teams, with wins over Washington, Kansas, UCLA and Gonzaga, but they lost five of their last six games and did not earn a road victory against any team in the RPI's top 150.

Slive said that after a lot of "deliberation," the committee felt that the Wildcats' losses were against respectable competition and that Arizona had several impressive victories to offset its flaws.

Penn State did not earn an at-large berth despite six wins against top 50 competition, including wins at Michigan State and Illinois. The biggest blemish on Penn State's résumé was a nonconference strength of schedule that ranked 307th nationally.

Slive said that Penn State had a "tremendous year" and was in the conversation right down to the last day. But he pointed to Penn State's nonconference schedule and said that the Nittany Lions had no nonconference wins in the top 100.

The nonconference season "is not an exhibition season," Slive said.

This season's tournament field also illustrated how difficult it is to earn an at-large berth if you are a team outside a major conference. Only four teams -- Butler, Brigham Young, Xavier and Dayton -- earned at-large berths among teams outside the top six power conferences.

Saint Mary's (Calif.) was likely among the teams most difficult to assess. The Gaels won 24 games against Division I competition even though they were without standout guard Patrick Mills for nine games because of injury. Mills returned to the court for the West Coast tournament but struggled mightily -- making 2 of 16 shots -- in a 25-point loss to Gonzaga in the final.

Creighton won even more games, 26 against Division I teams, and finished the season with 11 victories in its last 12 games. But the Bluejays played just four games against top 50 competition, winning two of them, possessed a strength of schedule that ranked 111th nationally and lost to Illinois State by 24 points in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.

San Diego State finished the season winning five of its last six games, losing to Utah, 52-50, in the Mountain West Conference tournament final. The Aztecs were 2-6 against top 50 teams, but they also collected three victories against Nevada-Las Vegas, a team that had been in contention for an at-large berth.

"It's about the whole body of work," Slive said. "Who did you play? When did you play? And who did you beat? . . . We have been talking about this for years, that nonconference games are important."

Last night was a good night for the two teams that appeared in last season's national title game, even though Memphis did not earn a No. 1 seed. Despite losing a host of standouts to the NBA, Memphis and Kansas are again well positioned for deep tournament runs.

Kansas earned a No. 3 seed after winning the Big 12 regular season title and winning nine games against top 50 competition. The Jayhawks claimed six wins against top 25 teams and played the nation's 18th toughest schedule.

The Tigers earned a No. 2 seed and could face the winner of the Maryland-California game in the second round. They have not lost since Coach John Calipari moved freshman Tyreke Evans to point guard.

"Whatever was in front of us, we took care of," Calipari told reporters after Memphis beat Tulsa in the Conference USA tournament final. "We are not allowed to lose like everyone else. They can lose three to five and still get a one seed. We lose one game, and we can't get a one seed."

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