No. 1 overall, Alabama was on top despite being implicated in a murder case. Another No. 1 seed, defending national champion Kansas, suffered a loss and was released from the hospital by its coach. Another, Houston, had just watched its best player go down in a heap with a gruesome injury.
This year’s March Madness leaders are far from perfect, but the presence of these teams and all their questions at the top of the bracket could make the NCAA want to see its tournament an entirely unpredictable mess.
Much of the drama surrounding the selection of this year’s group was resolved long before Selection Sunday.
Arizona State and Nevada came out of the bowl to make the 68-team field. Rutgers and Oklahoma State did not. Purdue, with 7-foot-4 Zach Eddy leading the way, passed UCLA for its fourth and final No. 1 overall.
And in a decision almost everyone saw coming, the selection committee left last year’s runner-up North Carolina out of the tournament. It made the Tar Heels the first team since the network expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to start the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and finish it without 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 finished first in the West Region, but only third overall behind the Crimson Tide and Cougars. The Jayhawks are awaiting the return of coach Bill Self, who went to the hospital last week complaining of chest tightness and balance problems. He has been discharged and is expected back this week.
Head of selection Craig Reynolds said every injury and every absence was taken into account.
“It’s definitely something the committee has been talking about throughout the year, and it definitely played a factor in the seeding and selection,” Reynolds said.
He said the committee didn’t ignore the lopsided losses either, with two of Kansas’ seven Ls coming in March to No. 2 seed Texas by 16 and 20 points.
“They’re marking 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 on Tuesday with two games of the first four. The complete madness begins on Thursday with the first round, with 16 games, then 16 more the next day.
Kansas’ loss to Texas in Saturday’s Big 12 semifinal likely played into FanDuel Sportsbook, setting the Jayhawks at 10-1 to win the title behind Alabama from the South Region (8-1 odds) and overall favorite Houston (5- 1), who would play in the Final Four in their hometown if they win the Midwest Region. The semifinals and finals will take place at NRG Stadium on April 1 and 3.
The Cougars lost Sunday’s conference title game in large part because they were without Marcus Sasser, the leading scorer who left the previous day’s game early after slipping awkwardly and injuring his groin.
Purdue likely found itself in the “1” row when it won the program’s second Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday, less than 24 hours after UCLA, also hurt this season, lost twice to Arizona in the for the Pac-12 title.
For Alabama, the SEC tournament was a relative breeze — no one stayed within double digits of the Tide — unlike the past two months, which have been met with a near-constant stream of headlines about former player Darius Miles, who is charged with capital murder in the Jan. 15 slaying of 23-year-old Jamia Harris.
“I’m not sure we would have predicted it,” said coach Nate Oates of the Tide, who are seeded No. 1 for the first time. “To be No. 1 overall is great. That speaks to what an incredible regular season we had. You still have to win games.”
The SEC and Big Ten led the way, placing eight teams each in the 68-team field. Duke won the ACC for the 22nd time and was one of five teams in the conference in a relatively weak year.
But this tournament isn’t just about big schools with big pedigrees.
Some teams to keep an eye on include 13th-seeded Iona, coached by legend Rick Pitino, who has the Gaels in the show for the second time in three years — some people wonder if he’ll go for the vacant job at Soon St. Iona got a tough draw – a first-round meeting against fourth-seeded UConn.
There’s Southern Conference champion Furman, returning to the tournament for the first time since 1980, and MEAC champion Howard, returning to the tournament for the first time since 1992.
There’s Kennesaw State, a program that went 1-28 in 2019-20 and is now in the bracket. For the rest of the dreamers, there’s Texas Southern, a team that won its conference tournament as the No. 8 seed and comes to March Madness at 2-14 for a game against Fairleigh Dickenson.