This time around, the madness began before the brackets even came out.
Kentucky, Syracuse, and North Carolina all earned top seeding for the NCAA tournament Sunday despite weekend losses that brought even more intrigue to the three-week, 67-game tournament better known as March Madness.
Michigan State earned the other No. 1 seed and was the only one of the four top-billed teams to win its conference tournament. The Spartans defeated Ohio State 68-64 in the Big Ten title game — a contest widely viewed as the game for the last No. 1 seed, even if selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway wouldn’t quite go there.
“As it turned out, this game put the No. 1 seed into the field,” he said.
While No. 2 seeds Kansas, Duke, Missouri, and Ohio State wonder whether they could’ve been rated higher, teams such as Drexel, Seton Hall, Mississippi State, and Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington think about what might have been. Those bubble teams were left out, and all will be wondering how Iona, California, and South Florida made it.
In the moments immediately after the brackets came out, the Iona-Drexel debate was getting the most traction.
“They weren’t the last team in,” Hathaway said of Iona. “They had a very good nonconference strength of schedule; they were 44. I know a lot of people are going to try to compare them to Drexel, and Drexel was well over 200. ... We think we got that one right. Obviously, a lot of people will debate it, and that’s what makes it fun.”
Next up, the NCAA tournament — a 68-team free-for-all that starts with first-round games Tuesday. That’s the first step en route to the Final Four, which begins March 31 in New Orleans.
Kentucky and Syracuse each enter the tournament with only two losses. Both were shoo-ins for top seeds — Hathaway all but said so last week — though their recent losses certainly will add more guesswork to those millions of brackets being filled out at spring training sites, corporate board rooms and everywhere else across America.
Syracuse fell to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals on Friday; Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference title game, and the Tar Heels lost to Florida State in the ACC finals Sunday. Combined with Kansas’ loss to Baylor in the Big 12 semifinals, this marked only the second time since 2003 that the top four teams in The Associated Press poll all lost in the same week.
Kentucky, placed in the South region, earned the overall No. 1 seed and will open the tournament against the winner of a first-round game between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky. No. 8 seed Iowa State will play defending champion Connecticut. Elsewhere in the South, No. 5 Wichita State plays No. 12 VCU, a Final Four team last year, while No. 4 Indiana plays No. 13 New Mexico State.
On the bottom of that bracket, No. 2 Duke plays No. 15 Lehigh, and No. 7 Notre Dame plays No. 10 Xavier, while No. 3 Baylor plays No. 14 South Dakota State and sixth-seeded UNLV plays 11th-seeded Colorado, which won its way into the bracket by winning the Pac-12 tournament.
In the West, top-seeded Michigan State will begin its quest for its seventh Final Four since 1999 against No. 16 LIU. No. 8 Memphis plays No. 9 St. Louis, as Rick Majerus takes his third team to the NCAA tournament. No. 5 New Mexico plays No. 12 Long Beach State, and No. 4 Louisville plays No. 13 Davidson.
The bottom of the bracket features No. 2 Missouri against No. 15 Norfolk State and No. 7 Florida against No. 10 Virginia. Missouri was ranked eighth overall and Hathaway said the Tigers bad strength of schedule cost them in the seeding, even though they won the Big 12 tournament.
Elsewhere in the West, No. 6 Murray State plays No. 11 Colorado State, and No. 3 Marquette will play the winner of a first-round game between 14 seeds BYU and Iona.
In the East region, No. 1 Syracuse plays No. 16 UNC Asheville and No. 8 Kansas State plays No. 9 Southern Mississippi. No. 5 Vanderbilt plays No. 12 Harvard, and No. 4 Wisconsin plays No. 13 Montana.
On the bottom, No. 2 Ohio State plays No. 15 Loyola (Md.), No. 7 Gonzaga plays No. 10 West Virginia, No. 3 Florida State plays No. 14 St. Bonaventure and No. 6 Cincinnati plays No. 11 Texas, which made it off the bubble.
In the Midwest, No. 1 North Carolina will play the winner of a first-round game between 16 seeds Lamar and Vermont. No. 8 Creighton will play No. 9 Alabama. No. 5 Temple meets the winner of 12 seeds California and South Florida and No. 4 Michigan plays No. 13 Ohio.
No. 2 Kansas meets No. 15 Detroit on the bottom of the bracket, and No. 7 Saint Mary’s plays No. 10 Purdue; No. 3 Georgetown plays No. 14 Belmont, and No. 6 San Diego State plays No. 11 N.C. State.
Other bubble teams left out included Miami, Northwestern, and Nevada. Meanwhile, Washington became the first team to win a regular-season title in a power conference and miss the tournament.