Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports
- Top-ranked Zags of the West Coast Conference get a No. 1 seed for first time
- Fellow WCC team Saint Mary's, Sun Belt's Middle Tennessee get at-large spots
- Mountain West gets record five teams while Southeastern Conference gets just three
Call this the year of the mid-major.
For the last decade or so, college basketball has often been viewed along major conference/mid-major lines. But the 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket released Sunday night would indicate the gap isn't that big at all.
Gonzaga, 30-2, earned a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history, leading a charge of mid-majors this year that got treated well by the selection committee throughout the bracket.
COMPLETE BRACKET: Printable NCAA bracket
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"We're not in any way trying to send any message whatsoever. That's not our job, our business," selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski said Sunday night. "Our job is to identify who we believe are the 37 best (at-large) teams. It's great for college basketball when the committee's evaluation is that there are good teams spread all around the country. It's a positive as far as we're concerned. But we were sending no message to teams that happened to be from those conferences."
The world is flat in college basketball now, and never has it been flatter than a season that saw the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 combine for 10 tournament bids while the SEC and ACC had to settle for seven between them. Heck, even the tournament champions of the Patriot League and Ohio Valley Conferences got more respect as 11 seeds than the winners of the Pac 12 and SEC tournaments, who earned 12s.
But up and down the bracket, the rationale for many of the decisions - both in selections and seeding - was rooted in a consistent metric: How teams performed on the road. Bobinski said road record played a huge role in selecting La Salle, St. Mary's and Middle Tennessee as the last three at-large teams in the field ahead of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and Iowa, each of whom had better wins but worse road records.
La Salle's Jan. 26 victory at VCU, for instance, was singled out as a "top-25 road win" that may have been a tiebreaker over a team like Tennessee, which didn't accomplish anything noteworthy away from home.
Middle Tennessee might have been the most controversial selection with just one top-50 win and a loss in the Sun Belt Conference semifinals. But the committee rewarded the Blue Raiders for their shiny 28-5 record, good RPI (28), top-10 non-conference strength of schedule and 11 road wins.
"It's been proven over many years wining in college basketball is predominantly the province of the home team," Bobinski said. "It's just difficult and really shows a sign of strength if you're able to go on the road and beat good teams away from home. This tournament is at neutral sites, and if you haven't shown you can play away from your own environment that's an indicator you're not one of the 37 best at-large teams."
The discussion over No. 1 seeds - and the order of them - was more muddled than usual. Parsing that issue was particularly important this year because the argument between Indiana and Louisville for the No. 1 overall seed would determine which school got placed in the geographically friendly Midwest Regional.
That debate was won by Louisville on the strength of its Big East tournament title Saturday night, while Indiana lost to Wisconsin in the semifinals of the Big Ten. That pushed the Hoosiers to the East Regional in Washington, D.C. as the No. 3 overall seed and gave Louisville a Final Four path through Lexington, Ky., and then Indianapolis - both within 115 miles of campus.
While the Cardinals got favorable geography, however, they didn't necessarily get an easy path to Atlanta. Colorado State, a rugged rebounding team, or underachieving but talented Missouri would wait in the Round of 32. If Louisville got through that, it could face Saint Louis, the country's buzz team after a devastating run through the Atlantic 10. Then a potential matchup with either No. 2 seed Duke, which was in play for a No. 1 seed, or No. 3 seed Michigan State might await in the Elite Eight.
For Indiana, the path seems a bit easier on paper, though the region's other heavyweights - No. 2 seed Miami, No. 3 seed Marquette and No. 4 seed Syracuse - are all capable of making Final Four runs.
Gonzaga, which heads the West Regional, could end up facing Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State or Mountain West champion New Mexico for a berth in the Final Four. Bobinski said the No. 1 seed discussions, which also included Duke and Miami, were "a very close call."
Among the other bracket takeaways:
Oregon, which won the Pac 12 tournament, got stuck with a 12 seed in the Midwest Regional, but Bobinski said the Ducks were in the field regardless of the championship game outcome. Oregon was the committee's No. 43 overall seed, but had to get bumped from an 11 to a 12 due to bracketing issues, Bobinski said. That was one of several head-scratching seeds for the Pac 12, which clearly wasn't respected much by the committee as California also got a No. 12 seed, Colorado earned a No. 10 seed. Arizona and UCLA both earned No. 6 seeds.
Selection committees try to avoid rematches of regular season games, but Bobinski said pitting UNLV and California against one another was unavoidable due to bracketing issues that involved the "First Four" teams. The committee wanted to avoid having a First Four team go from Dayton on Tuesday or Wednesday to a Western sub-regional on Thursday or Friday, and thus "we really ran out of options."
The committee, which always seems to produce juicy early-round matchups, put North Carolina as a No. 8 seed in the South Regional. Thus, if the Tar Heels advance past No. 9 seed Villanova, they would almost certainly play No. 1 seed Kansas, pitting North Carolina coach Roy Williams against his former school in Kansas City.
The Mountain West Conference earned five bids for the first time in history, with regular season and tournament champion New Mexico leading the way as a No. 3 seed in the West.
Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, might have been the most surprising seed of all. The Bison, which finished 27-5 but had a strength of schedule of 192, will play No. 6 seed Butler in the East Regional.
The SEC, which struggled in non-conference games in November and December, was basically dismissed by the selection committee. The league earned only three bids, with Ole Miss - which won the league tournament on Sunday - getting a No. 12 seed in the West Regional to play Wisconsin. That left Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama on the outside looking in. For Kentucky, it's only the second time in 21 years the Wildcats are headed to the NIT. It's the second time in the last five years.