Overall no. 1 Florida facing a tough road
Florida’s path to the Final Four is filled with college basketball blue bloods.
The Gators earned the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed after beating Kentucky 61-60 in the SEC championship game Sunday. Coach Billy Donovan’s team, which has won 26 consecutive games, is the top seed for the first time since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
"It’s kind of what we expected," said guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC’s player of the year and tournament MVP. "It feels good. Obviously, it doesn’t matter when the games start playing."
Florida (32-2) will open tournament play Thursday in Orlando, Fla., in the South Region. The Gators will face the winner of Albany (18-14) and Mount St. Mary’s (16-16), two 16 seeds that play Tuesday night in Dayton, Ohio.
"We’ve got to stay locked in and not let it get to our heads," Wilbekin added.
Florida’s road to Dallas could get considerably tougher after that, with No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 3 seed Syracuse and No. 4 seed UCLA all in the South. The Jayhawks, Orange and Bruins have a combined 15 national titles and plenty of experience on the biggest stage.
"Anybody in the country can come out and win it," Florida center Patric Young said.
Kansas (24-9) opens the tournament Friday against 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky in St. Louis, a short trip for the Jayhawks. Eastern Kentucky (24-9) beat Belmont in the Ohio Valley Conference final to earn its eighth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2007.
NCAA TOURNAMENT: BY THE NUMBERS
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Behind star freshman Andrew Wiggins, Kansas captured its 10th straight Big 12 regular-season title but lost to eventual champion Iowa State in the tournament semifinals to dash any hopes of a No. 1 seed. The Jayhawks likely will be without 7-footer Joel Embiid until the tournament’s second weekend. The Big 12 defensive player of the year has a stress fracture in his lower back.
"You obviously worry about winning a two-game tournament," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "You don’t worry about what you could potentially worry about next week."
Virginia climbs back into the driver’s seat
Virginia waited nearly 40 years to win another Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title.
The Cavaliers needed only a few more hours to find out they were No. 1 again, this time earning the top seed in the NCAA Tournament’s East Region.
The Cavaliers (28-6) will face No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina (21-12) on Friday in Raleigh, N.C., in the second round, and a win would pit them against either Memphis or George Washington.
They won their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981, and their first tournament title since 1976, and had more reason to celebrate Sunday night when they joined Florida, Arizona and Wichita State as No. 1 seeds.
"I think you have to be faithful to what brought you to this point, which is you play the kind of basketball we’ve been playing and continue to have that drive and have that hunger to play well because of the way the tournament is," coach Tony Bennett said. "Every team you play is so solid. This will be another challenge that way to be ready to go."
The Cavaliers face a rugged path if they want to reach the Final Four for the first time since 1984: Big East regular-season champion Villanova is the No. 2 seed, Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State is No. 3, Big 10 tournament champ Michigan State is No. 4.
The Wildcats (28-4) will play Milwaukee (21-13) on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. With a win, they would face a familiar team in the next round: ex-Big East beast Connecticut or Philadelphia’s Saint Joseph’s.
Coach Jay Wright’s Wildcats seemed poised to earn a No. 1 seed until they were knocked out by Seton Hall in their first game of the conference tournament at MSG.
"I never worry about that," Wright said. "I’m happy to have a high seed and then you’ve got to play good basketball."
Wright has led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament nine times, including the 2009 Final Four. He believes his balanced team is good enough to play deep into March.
UCLA loss not enough to drop Arizona
A loss in the Pac-12 title game didn’t hurt Arizona when it came to seeding the NCAA Tournament.
Despite their loss to UCLA on Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Wildcats (30-4) are No. 1 in the West Region and will open against No. 16 Weber State in their opening game on Thursday in San Diego.
Arizona got the top spot based on its regular season, one that started with a school-record 21 straight wins and included the Pac-12 regular-season title despite losing forward Brandon Ashley for the season with an injured foot on Feb. 1.
The Wildcats are the top dogs in the West, but they’ll have a tough road. Get past the Big Sky version of the Wildcats (19-11) and Arizona will face the winner between Oklahoma State and Gonzaga.
The rest of the West bracket is filled with strong teams, including No. 2 seed Wisconsin, No. 3 Creighton with player-of-the-year front-runner Doug McDermott, San Diego State, Oregon and Baylor.
That’s four ranked teams standing in the way of fourth-ranked Arizona in a regional that will conclude Mar. 27-29 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif.
Wisconsin (26-7) had been in the running for a No. 1 seed before losing to Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament semifinals. The 12th-ranked Badgers still will be a tough out with a defense that’s always one of the best in the country under coach Bo Ryan.
Wisconsin will have a short trip, too, opening Thursday in Milwaukee against American, the Patriot League champions who went from 10-20 a year ago to a 22-10 season to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third time.
Get past American and Wisconsin will play the winner of what should be an electric game between Oregon (23-9) and BYU (23-11), two of the nation’s fastest-paced and highest-scoring teams. They played once already this season, with the Ducks winning a home overtime game that featured nearly 200 combined points and nearly as many highlight-reel plays.
The Cougars might have a hard time keeping up this time, though, after guard Kyle Collinsworth suffered a torn ACL in the WCC title game.
Wichita State sits atop a loaded regional
Wichita State’s reward for a perfect regular season is a loaded Midwest Region, where the top-seeded Shockers will be joined by fellow 2013 Final Four participants Michigan and Louisville, two of the titans of college hoops.
Now that’s something for the Shockers to be angry about.
Coach Gregg Marshall’s team landed the first No. 1 seed in school history on Sunday night and will begin play Friday in St. Louis, where they ran their record to 34-0 by winning the Missouri Valley tournament title last weekend. The Shockers open against the winner of a First Four game between Big West champ Cal Poly and SWAC champion Texas Southern.
Also inhabiting the Midwest are the second-seeded Wolverines and fourth-seeded Cardinals, who played each other in last year’s title game won by Louisville. Then there’s No. 3 seed Duke and No. 8 seed Kentucky, two programs with March pedigrees that match up with anybody.
Not much of a prize for Wichita State, the first school to reach the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record since UNLV in 1991. In fact, the minefield might just give the Shockers a good reason to keep "playing angry," that mantra they’ve adopted over the past couple of years.
"I feel like I have something to prove, and my teammates have something to prove," Shockers star Cleanthony Early said. "And when you will be facing programs that people think you can’t beat, those are the types of challenges you need to prove yourself."
If the Shockers advance, they’ll await the winner of Kentucky and No. 9 seed Kansas State, a school that rarely plays them even though they’re a few hours’ drive from each other.
"When you watch college basketball when you grow up, you think about three programs — you think about Kansas, Duke and Kentucky," Kansas State guard Shane Southwell said. "I was fortunate enough to play against Kansas and Duke and now I’m about to play Kentucky. I want to beat them."