From Columbia, Mo., to Columbia, S.C, the Kentucky Wildcats conquered all stops in between the last three months in the Southeastern Conference, punctuated by a swift three-game romp to the SEC tournament title in Nashville. From there, Kentucky’s road to immortality goes through Louisville, Cleveland and Indianapolis, site of the NCAA Tournament Final Four.
As expected, John Calipari’s Wildcats (34-0) earned the bracket’s No. 1 overall seed Sunday— they’ll play in the Midwest Regional — and need six more wins to complete the first Division I undefeated season since Indiana won it all in 1976. Kentucky is just the fourth team to enter the tournament without a loss since Bob Knight’s Hoosiers went 32-0 39 years ago. The other three all fell short in the tournament: Indiana State in 1979, UNLV in 1991 and Wichita State last year.
The Wildcats, 78-63 winners over Arkansas in Sunday’s SEC championship game, open Thursday in Louisville against the No. 16 seed, the winner between Tuesday’s Manhattan-Hampton game.
The other No. 1 regional seeds are Villanova (East), Duke (South) and Wisconsin (West). Wisconsin, the Big Ten regular-season and tournament champion, is a No. 1 seed for the first time in team history. Utah State athletics director Scott Barnes, the NCAA Tournament selection committee chairman, said Wisconsin would have been a No. 1 seed regardless of Sunday’s outcome in the Big Ten tournament final. In Chicago, the Badgers needed overtime to outlast Michigan State 80-69.
“They deserve everything they got, and they proved it because we gave them as good a shot as I think anybody has,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters in Chicago.
Should the top four seeds reach the Final Four — it’s only happened once since tournament seeding began in 1979 — Kentucky would face Wisconsin in Indianapolis, a rematch of last year’s national semifinal, and Duke would meet Villanova.
One of the compelling stories heading into the bracket announcement centered on the No. 2 seed in Kentucky’s regional. Which team would have the misfortune of drawing Calipari’s powerhouse in a regional final should the seedings hold up? That team is No. 2 seed Kansas. Kentucky flattened the Big 12 regular-season champions by 32 points back in November. Other top seeds in the Midwest Regional are No. 3 Notre Dame, the ACC tournament champion, and No. 4 Maryland.
Kentucky players didn’t bother cutting down the nets Sunday at Bridgestone Arena, instead letting student managers handle the ceremonial snips.
“Those aren’t the nets we’re really looking to cut down,” junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, the SEC tournament MVP, told reporters in Nashville. “It was just a milestone. It’s part of the process for us winning and everything, but we’re looking for something bigger. We’re looking to cut down a couple more nets in the tournament.”
Calipari later admitted on ESPN that Kentucky forgot to cut down the Nashville nets in the team’s rush to get back to Lexington to watch the tournament selection show. Either way, the Wildcats will be overwhelming favorites to reach Indianapolis.
“I think I have the best team and I have the best players,” Calipari said on ESPN. “I do. Now, does that mean we’ll win? No, it doesn’t.”
The other top four seeds in the respective regionals are as follows: Villanova, Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville in the East, with Syracuse, N.Y., hosting the regional final; Duke, Gonzaga, Iowa State and Georgetown in the South, with the final in Houston; and Wisconsin, Arizona, Baylor and North Carolina in the West, with the final in Los Angeles.
The tournament tips off Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio, with the First Four games: Hampton vs. Manhattan, with the winner drawing Kentucky, and Ole Miss vs. Brigham Young, with the winner getting Xavier, the No. 6 seed in the West Regional. On Wednesday in Dayton, North Florida faces Robert Morris, with the winner getting Duke, and Boise State faces Dayton — yes, in Dayton — for the right to face Providence, the No. 6 seed in the East.
The last four teams in the bracket were Ole Miss, BYU, Boise State and Dayton. The first four out of the tournament were Colorado State, Temple, Old Dominion and Richmond. Barnes said Wyoming, an upset champion in the Mountain West Conference tournament, essentially took Temple’s at-large bid. The Owls were 13-5 in the American Athletic Conference and had a nonconference win over Kansas.
The Big Ten and Big 12 led the bracket with seven teams each, followed by the ACC and Big East with six each, the SEC with five and the Pac-12 with four.
The SEC’s five berths are the league’s most since getting six in 2011. Arkansas, in the tournament for the first time since 2008, is the No. 5 seed in the West and opens against No. 12 seed Wofford.
Louisiana State squeaked into the bracket for the first time since 2009 with the No. 9 seed in the East and faces No. 8 North Carolina State. Georgia is East’s No. 10 seed and faces No. 7 Michigan State.
“I think they have done a good job of making sure that people know that the SEC is just not Kentucky. There’s some other teams here,” said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, in the tournament for the first time since taking Missouri in 2011. “As we go to the next stage, the tournament, then that’s when we got to do some more damage.”
Other bracket notes of interest …
• The 68-team field is the first since 2008 that doesn’t include at least one local team among SLU, Missouri and Illinois.
• There are three first-time participants, including Mid-American Conference champion Buffalo, coached by Bobby Hurley, the point guard on Duke’s back-to-back national championship teams in 1991-92. Atlantic Sun champion North Florida and Big West champion UC-Irvine are also making their NCAA Tournament debuts.
• UCLA, the 11th seed in the South, was perhaps the most controversial selection. The Bruins were 6-4 in their final 10 games but benefited from playing four nonconference teams that all earned top four seeds: Kentucky, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oklahoma. Barnes said UCLA’s seeding was one of the committee’s “tougher decisions.”
“As we tracked UCLA over the last month or so, (the committee) felt like they were gaining steam,” he said. “They did have a good strength of schedule and were playing better against tough competition.”
• Defending national champion Connecticut failed to make the bracket after a 20-14 season. The Huskies would have gained an automatic berth with a win in Sunday’s AAC championship game but lost to Southern Methodist. Had UConn won Sunday, Dayton would have most likely missed the field, Barnes told ESPN.
Earlier story from The Associated Press:
The Kentucky Wildcats ended up where everyone expected them on Selection Sunday: Seeded No. 1 on their quest to become the first undefeated team since 1976.
Oh, but there were surprises when the bracket came out, too.
Big-conference UCLA and Texas made it. Colorado State and Temple did not.
Wisconsin is a No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. But the Badgers must play in the West Region, where second-seeded Arizona is certain to draw more fans.
As for those play-in games Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton. Well, one of the teams playing is Dayton — a No. 11 seed that will have a distinct home-court advantage against Boise State. Generally, that’s not allowed during the tournament, but there’s an exception because the committee said the Flyers were the last team in, and thus, had to play in the opening-round game.
“It falls within our policies and procedures,” selection committee chairman Scott Barnes said. “It’s obviously a home-court advantage but we didn’t waver from that decision.”
The action starts in full on Thursday, when Kentucky headlines the action against the winner of a play-in game between No. 16 seeds Manhattan and Hampton. A ‘1’ has never lost to a ’16.’
The other No. 1 seeds were Villanova in the East and Duke in the South. Those were pretty easy picks.
And then there was the total no-brainer — placing Kentucky at the very top of the bracket. The Wildcats defeated Arkansas 78-63 on Sunday to improve to 34-0. If they win six more, they’ll become the first team since then 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers to go undefeated.
“I think I have the best team and the best players,” said coach John Calipari, trying to lead the Wildcats to their ninth national title. “Does that mean we’ll win? No, it doesn’t.”
Barnes called the UCLA pick “one of the tougher decisions we had to make.” But he defended putting the Bruins (20-13) in the bracket despite an RPI of 48, which is 18 spots lower than Colorado State.
“We felt they were gaining steam,” Barnes said. “They did have a good strength-of-schedule, they were playing better against tough competition. An example is the last game against Arizona (a 70-64 loss in the Pac-12 title game). I think the “eye test” was also a plus in putting them in the field.”
The Big Ten and Big 12 led the way by placing seven teams each in the bracket.
Other teams that just missed were Old Dominion and Richmond, which lost out to teams like Ole Miss and Texas that have stronger schedules baked into the cake because they play in major conferences.
As is custom, Barnes was short on specifics, though he said Wyoming’s surprise victory in the Mountain West Conference stole away an at-large bid that would’ve gone to Temple.
The 68-team bracket includes its usual share of quirks and tear-jerkers.
• UCLA’s first game is against SMU, coached by Larry Brown, the 74-year-old turnaround artist who is taking his third team to the NCAA Tournament. The first team? UCLA, of course.
• Georgia State coach Ron Hunter watched the bracket unveiling with his left foot in a cast. He tore his Achilles’ tendon while celebrating his program’s first trip to the tournament since 2001. The 14th-seeded Panthers open against Baylor.
• Also seeded No. 14 is Albany, which made the tournament on a 3-pointer with 1 second left by Peter Hooley, whose mother died six weeks ago. No. 14 Albany opens against Oklahoma.