EARLY LAST WEEK, the at-large pool looked rather soft. It hardened on Friday night, making it quite uncomfortable for teams that looked solidly in the field. By the time the upsets were done, four at-large spots evaporated because non-at-large teams Cleveland State (Horizon), Temple (Atlantic 10), USC (Pacific 10) and Mississippi State (Southeastern) won conference tournaments.
One could make a case for a half-dozen teams for those final few spots. Potential at-large teams such as Creighton, San Diego State, Penn State and Saint Mary's may have gone from in to out. The at-large pool is a moving target, which always shrinks near the end. It appears as if 12 seeds Wisconsin and Arizona were the final two at-large teams. The Wildcats have now made 25 consecutive tournaments. They got in because of their really good wins and despite a 2-9 road record.
Villanova starts on Thursday at the Wachovia Center against Patriot League champion American. Temple starts Friday in Miami against Arizona State.
Louisville (Midwest) was given the No. 1 overall seed, the first of three No. 1 seeds for the Big East. The Cardinals have two bus rides to Dayton and Indianapolis and a rather easy bracket. They will fly to Detroit for the Final Four.
Pittsburgh (28-4) is No. 1 seed in the East. North Carolina (28-4) got a record 13th No. 1 seed and will be in the South. Connecticut is No. 1 in the West. The Huskies (27-4) will also start at the Wachovia Center, playing Southern Conference champion Chattanooga.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino won his ninth conference championship at three different schools (Boston University, Kentucky, Louisville). He also took Providence to the 1987 Final Four.
The Cardinals (28-5) were the only team from the six BCS conferences to win the regular season and tournament. They are 7-1 against the top 25, 8-1 on the road and have won 10 straight. That is definitely the kind of profile the Selection Committee loves for its overall No. 1 seed.
By the way, if you are thinking of picking a No. 16 seed, consider that they are 0-96. No. 15 seeds are 4-92. Every No. 1 seed has gotten to the Sweet 16 in the last four tournaments. Last year, all of the No. 1s made the Final Four. That was a first.
Memphis (31-3) was the fifth overall seed and has won 25 straight. A year after doing everything but win the national title, the Tigers are quite dangerous again.
Cornell coach Steve Donahue was at the top of the list for the Boston University opening. But that looks like a lateral move. If he is going to leave Cornell at some point, Donahue, the former Penn assistant, probably is looking for something bigger. And if his team can beat Missourti in the first round, he will have more than enough suitors.
First-timers include Mid-Eastern winner Morgan State, America East winner Binghamton, Summit winner North Dakota State and Southland winner Stephen F. Austin.
Todd Bozeman, who coached Jason Kidd at California, is back with Morgan after NCAA-mandated sanctions kept him out of coaching. Philly's D.J. Rivera, a Saint Joseph's transfer, is Binghamton's star. North Dakota State is the first team to make the NCAA in its first year of eligibility. Its star, Ben Woodside, had 60 against Stephen F. Austin on Dec. 12. SFA, by the way, holds teams to just 37 percent shooting, 27 percent from the arc; SFA could do nothing with Woodside.
Once Syracuse beat Connecticut in that six-overtime game on Thursday and Friday, everything else in the conference tournaments (18 of 30 regular-season winners won their tournament) got overshadowed.
Sadly, the incredible Mike Singletary was among those overlooked. All Singletary did in Texas Tech's Big 12 upset of Texas A & M was score 29 consecutive points over 9 minutes. Averaging just 12.2, he finished with 43.
The nation's leading shot blocker, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnardo, went off in his four SEC Tournament games, scoring 55 points, getting 35 rebounds and blocking 22 shots. And how about the ball changing hands four times in a second of game time very late in yesterday's title game with Tennessee?
The reverse of Singletary and Varnardo was UCLA in the Pac-10 semis against USC. The Bruins were the only team shooting more than 50 percent from the field. They were 19-for-70 (27.1 percent). Veteran point guard Darren Collison, a 53 percent shooter, was 1-for-9 with seven turnovers. It was as if just about the entire UCLA team forgot how to play at the same time.
If you are into stats, consider that Collison leads the nation in free throw percentage. Arizona State's Jeff Pendergraph leads the nation in field goal accuracy. Three of the top four rebounders are in the tournament - Oklahoma's Blake Griffin (first), Morehead State's Kenneth Faried (third) and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair (fourth).
The BCS leagues got 30 of the 34 at-large bids. It might have been 31 if Butler had not lost the Horizon title game to Cleveland State. BYU, Xavier and Dayton were the other non-BCS at-large teams. So, the Atlantic 10 had half the at-large pool outside the Big Six.
Davidson finished 26-6. With Stephen Curry, they were last year's great story. Their resume did not measure up this year so they were not selected.
But 65 teams are in. Three weeks from tonight, one of them will hear that song at Ford Field, get showered with confetti and have a lifetime memory. *
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