NCAA Selection Sunday: Gonzaga earns top seed overall

When the pairings for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament were announced Sunday night, it served as a welcome mat to the sport.

Duke and Kentucky, as well as the Ivy League, represented by Yale, are back for the first time since 2019. Also returning are a host of super seniors like Mitch Lightfoot, who first adapted for Kansas in 2016. And the doors were thrown open for Jacksonville State, which secured ASUN’s only conference offer despite losing in the tournament semifinal.

The most welcome return, however, will not be for blue bloods or Cinderellas, familiar trainers or rising stars. It will be for the pageantry that gives the tournament its flavor – the bands, the cheerleaders, the professional arenas filled with roaring fans who eagerly awaited Sunday’s announcement about where they should book hotel rooms.

After the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 tournament and muted the 2021 edition, which was anchored in Indianapolis, this year’s event is set to bring together a valuable element: its atmosphere.

There was a hint of what lay ahead and what was missing at Madison Square Garden late last week when sold-out crowds for the Big East Conference tournament brought the old building to life – ​​especially Friday’s late-night semifinal when Villanova held off Connecticut in an old-school Big East knockdown that Villanova coach Jay Wright called “a basketball addict’s dream.” -ball”.

He wasn’t the only one looking forward to playing buildings with juice.

“I’m going to really appreciate it, especially with what we went through last year with limited fans and being in a bubble,” said Creighton senior guard Alex O’Connell, who played in two tournaments at Duke. before transferring and reaching the turn. of 16 last year with the Bluejays, another Big East program.

His team’s run ended not in front of a raucous crowd in a cavernous arena, but in front of a small number of masked fans away from the field in the picturesque Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s arena and where the film’s climactic scenes ” Hoosiers” were filmed. . There were no bands, mascots, or cheerleaders, so the most audible sounds were the squeaking of sneakers on the hardwood.

Creighton lost this afternoon to Gonzaga, who was the same as now the top seed in the group. The Zags, who were chasing a perfect season last year, will simply chase their first national championship this season when they open in the West Region in Portland, Ore.

The other seeds are Arizona in the South, Kansas in the Midwest and defending champion Baylor, who routed Gonzaga to win the 2021 title, in the East.

Gonzaga and Arizona, whose first-year coach Tommy Lloyd was a longtime Gonzaga assistant, with fourth-seeded UCLA in the East returning all notable players from the Final Four Team of the Year last, give the West Coast one of its best chances lately. years to win a national championship for the first time since Arizona’s superb title run in the 1996-97 season.

Still, there is hardly a prohibitive favorite in what appears to be an open chase to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.

Consider that one of Gonzaga’s three losses was at Alabama, which could serve as a fitting poster child for a season in which seemingly anything could happen. Some of the turbulence was surely linked to the pandemic. At first, games were regularly canceled or postponed due to coronavirus outbreaks when the Omicron variant appeared in late November. This meant breaks and restarts and condensed schedules, which disrupted the training habits and continuity of many teams and added levels of fatigue.

Still, it’s hard to make sense of Alabama, which beat Southeastern Conference tournament champions Gonzaga, Baylor and Tennessee and yet gave Georgia its only conference victory, losing to Iona and was eliminated from the SEC tournament by Vanderbilt.

Another tough consideration for the committee was Rutgers, which won 12 games in the Big Ten, the nation’s deepest conference, yet lost to Massachusetts and Lafayette and needed overtime to pass Lehigh.

Perhaps it’s fitting that sixth-seeded Alabama in the West could play against Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights survive a playoff against Notre Dame.

Teams in the precarious bubble weren’t helped when Virginia Tech, which lost in overtime to Florida in last year’s NCAA tournament, got another hit by completing an unlikely four-day jaunt through the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament by defeating Duke on Saturday night. This run started off pretty hesitantly: with Darius Maddox hitting a 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer to outlast Clemson.

The bubble got even more crowded on Sunday when Richmond, who recovered by 15 points to beat Rhode Island and Dayton, crawled out of a 5-point hole with just over a minute to beat top-seeded Davidson. , Sunday afternoon for the Atlantic. 10 Conference Tournament Title.

Ultimately, Richmond’s victory dashed the hopes of another A-10 team, Dayton, which selection committee chairman Tom Burnett said was that first team left out. Others who were left just off the field included Oklahoma, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M and Xavier.

The Big Ten, which came up short in last year’s tournament, landed nine teams on the field – including Michigan, which had the worst record among overall teams (17-14), and Indiana, which, like Rutgers, must survive a play-off. , against Wyoming.

Michigan had to make do late in the season without coach Juwan Howard, who was suspended for five games for punching a Wisconsin assistant coach after a loss.

Louisiana State will find itself in a similar position after coach Will Wade and top assistant were fired on Saturday. The Tigers received a sixth seed and will face Iowa State, which achieved a remarkable turnaround after winning just two games last season. The Ivy League, which canceled last season, will send 14th-seeded Yale in the East against Purdue after the Bulldogs upset top-seeded Princeton in Sunday’s conference championship game.

Providence, which won its first-ever regular season title in the Big East – helped by canceled games against Creighton, Connecticut and Seton Hall – is ranked fourth in the Midwest region and will open in Buffalo against South Dakota State. . The Brothers are another era team – with a starting lineup of four graduate students.

Richmond earning a spot ensures that players like Jacob Gilyard, the dynamo of a Spiders point guard, will be able to shine in front of a wider audience. This year’s tournament also provides another spotlight moment for Collin Gillespie, Villanova’s determined playmaker and Big East Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.

Like Gilyard, he enjoyed an extra season the NCAA granted to any athletes who might have been unsure of the health risks of playing last year during the pandemic. Gillespie sat in the stands at Hinkle Fieldhouse on crutches last March as Villanova tried valiantly to fight off Baylor after suffering a season-ending knee ligament injury.

No one, however, will have more eyes on him in this tournament than Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach who is retiring after 42 seasons with the Blue Devils. Duke opens the tournament near home against Cal State Fullerton, as the No. 2 seed in the West.

A year ago, Krzyzewski questioned whether the season should even take place during the pandemic – and it ended with the Blue Devils pulling out of the ACC tournament when their team was hit by cases of coronavirus.

He later announced that this season would be his last, ensuring that whether he won his sixth national championship – he has more than any men’s coach except John Wooden – or stepped off the court after a defeat, he wouldn’t do it without any pomp and circumstance.

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