The top overall seed, Alabama, has been on a roll despite being entangled in a murder case. Another No. 1 seed, defending national champion Kansas, is coming off a blowout loss and has a coach coming out of the hospital. Yet another, Houston, just watched its best player go down in a heap with a scary injury.
This year’s March Madness frontrunners are anything but perfect, but the presence of these teams and all their questions at the top of the bracket could make for precisely what the NCAA wants its tournament to be – a perfectly unpredictable mess.
Most of the drama in picking this year’s bracket was resolved far before Selection Sunday.
Arizona State and Nevada made it off the bubble and into the 68-team field. Rutgers and Oklahoma State did not. Purdue, with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey leading the way, edged out UCLA for the fourth and final No. 1 seed.
And in a decision most everyone saw coming, the selection committee left North Carolina, last year’s national runner-up, out of the tournament. It made the Tar Heels the first team since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to start the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and finish it by not making the Big Dance.
The team they lost to, Kansas, is trying to become the first back-to-back NCAA champion since Florida in 2007.
The Jayhawks earned the top seed in the West Region, but only the third overall, behind the Crimson Tide and the Cougars. The Jayhawks are awaiting the return of coach Bill Self, who went to the hospital last week complaining of chest tightness and concerns with his balance. He has been discharged and is expected back this week.
The head of the selection committee, Chris Reynolds, said it took every injury, and every absence, into account.
“It’s certainly something the committee talked about during the course of the year, and certainly played a factor in seeding and selection,” said Reynolds, the athletic director at Bradley.
He said the committee also did not ignore lopsided losses: Two of Kansas’ seven Ls came in March to Texas, a No. 2 seed, by 16 and 20 points.
“They mark it how they feel and we’re just going to do what we need to do to get where we need to be,” Kansas forward KJ Adams said.
The tournament begins Tuesday with two First Four games. The full madness starts Thursday with 16 first-round games, then 16 more the next day.
Kansas’ loss to Texas in the Big 12 semifinal Saturday likely played into FanDuel Sportsbook setting the Jayhawks at 10-1 to win the title, behind both Alabama of the South Region (8-1 odds) and the overall favorite, Houston (5-1 odds), which would be playing the Final Four in its hometown if it wins the Midwest Region. The semifinals and finals are set for NRG Stadium on April 1 and 3.
The Cougars lost their conference title game Sunday, in large part because they were without Marcus Sasser, the leading scorer who left the previous day’s game early after sliding awkwardly and hurting his groin.
Purdue likely found its way onto the “1” line when it won the program’s second Big Ten tournament title Sunday, less than 24 hours after UCLA, also dinged-up this season, fell by two to Arizona in the Pac-12 title game.
For Alabama, the SEC tournament was a relative breeze – nobody stayed within double digits of the Tide — unlike the past two months, which have been met with a near constant flow of headlines about a former player, Darius Miles, who is accused of capital murder In the Jan. 15 killing of 23-year-old Jamea Harris.
“I’m not sure we would have predicted this,” said coach Nate Oats of the Tide, which is a No. 1 seed for the first time. “Being the No. 1 overall seed is great. It says what an unbelievable regular season we’ve had. You’ve still got to go win the games.”
The SEC and Big Ten led the way by placing eight teams each in the 68-team field. Duke won the ACC for the 22nd time and was one of five teams from that conference in a relatively weak year.
But this tournament is always about more than big schools with big pedigrees.
Some teams to watch for include 13th-seeded Iona, coached by the legend, Rick Pitino, who has the Gaels in the show for the second time in three years – with some people wondering if he’ll be heading over to a vacant job at St. John’s soon. Iona got a brutal draw – a first-round meeting against fourth-seeded UConn.
There is Southern Conference champion Furman, back in the tournament for the first time since 1980, and MEAC champ Howard, back in the tourney for the first time since 1992.
There is Kennesaw State, the program that went 1-28 in 2019-20 and now finds itself in the bracket. For the rest of the dreamers, there is Texas Southern – the team that won its conference tournament as a No. 8 seed and comes to March Madness at 14-20 for a play-in game against Fairleigh Dickinson.