It's time to get on the highway to Arlington, Tex., as the path to the Final Four is made plain for 68 teams.
What are the 10 biggest stories to emerge from Selection Sunday — selection, seeding, bracketing, the regions, the matchups, everything under the sun?
The envelope, please:
10 – THE BUBBLE SELECTIONS: SMU OUT, NORTH CAROLINA STATE IN
The main point of controversy in terms of selection was SMU's exclusion, combined with North Carolina State's inclusion. One bracketologist, Patrick Stevens of Syracuse.com, nailed this selection, but he was lonely in that regard. Viewed within that context, this was surprising. If you had followed major college basketball sites the past few weeks, SMU was considered either a "lock" (Eamonn Brennan's Bubble Watch for ESPN) or likely to be in. Joe Lunardi didn't even have SMU in the First Four. That's a big miss from the godfather of bracketology. Yet, it's not as though others were right… except for Patrick Stevens.
What about the actual merits of this in-and-out swap?
One can't say that SMU had an airtight case, with a non-conference schedule ranked near 300 out of 351 teams. Larry Brown probably didn't think his team would improve so quickly, so he made a schedule with an intent to gently shepherd his team into the season. If the Mustangs had the horses to make a big run, Brown surely would have scheduled differently, and he'll very likely do so in the future. North Carolina State showed how weak a bubble we had on our hands this year. The Wolfpack waited a long time to post a quality win, but their finish was strong enough because they scheduled a lot better out of conference.
N.C. State's inclusion in this tournament is entirely reasonable. Remember that when you get down to the final two or three cases, there's usually a strong reason for excluding anyone. Virginia Tech in 2011 was a particularly outrageous exclusion. This one, not as much.
9 – THE SEEDINGS: LOUISVILLE AND MICHIGAN STATE AT 4, AND THE MOUNTAIN WEST DEBACLE
There's an instance of this every season, it seems. Last year, Oregon won the Pac-12 Tournament but got a 12 seed. (The Ducks were kept close to home as compensation, but the seeding remained absurd.) This year, three conference tournament winners in particular — Louisville, Michigan State, and New Mexico — were simply not rewarded. Louisvile and Sparty had seemingly played their way off the 4 line over the weekend, while New Mexico's win of a rubber match against San Diego State figured to vault the Lobos to the 5 line. Yet, UL and MSU are 4 seeds while New Mexico is a 7. Purely on the basis of seeding, conference tournament results were essentially ignored.
8 – THE BRACKETING/LOCATIONS: WHY SEEDS CAN SOMETIMES MEAN SO LITTLE
The Wichita State Shockers got that No. 1 seed, that "prize" which was such a big point of discussion over the past month.
Gregg Marshall's team got rewarded with a draw from hell: Kentucky, Louisville, and (should it get that far) Michigan or Duke. Seeing Louisville as the 4 seed in a region with a much-questioned 1 seed evokes memories of 2005, when an underseeded UL squad beat top-seeded Washington in the Sweet 16 en route to the Final Four. Louisville is underseeded in this tournament, but the Cardinals have to love the path they've been given.
Higher seeds are sometimes attached to great draws — ostensibly, they're supposed to be — but if they're attached to bad draws, you're left wishing that you'd gotten the lower seed.
Look at Michigan here. The Wolverines didn't get the top seed in the East? Big letdown, right?
The Wolverines stay closer to home in the Midwest as the 2 seed. They get a less-than-overwhelming Duke team as the 3 in their half of the Midwest bracket. They could get another shot at Louisville in the Elite Eight, a rematch of last year's national title game. Michigan has to be excited about how the bracket worked out.
7 – THE FIRST FOUR BUBBLE GAMES
It comes as a surprise that BYU, given its injury-related questions, was not slotted here. It's also a mild shock to the system — though not necessarily unfair or unwarranted — for Iowa, once thought to be a Final Four contender within the flow of this season, to be relegated to this round. Iowa and Tennessee both played a lot of tough teams but beat few of them. The winner can enter the round of 64 feeling that it has achieved something.
The other First Four bubble game has a "non-mid-major mid-major," Xavier, against "last team in" North Carolina State. T.J. Warren not only gets a national showcase game; he gets it without a competing game on another network.
6 – OKLAHOMA STATE AND THE "9 SEED IN THE WEST" ANGLE
The first time the NCAA tournament was seeded? 1979. That year, ninth-seeded Pennsylvania made the Final Four. Not until Wichita State last season did another 9 seed make the Final Four. The Shockers came out of the West Region.
This year, Oklahoma State — a team with Final Four-level talent (but not coaching) — could be another 9 in the West to make a racket in the bracket. This is the low-seeded sniper that could make a run to Jerry Jones's place. Arizona should have its hands full with the Cowboys if the Pokes get past Gonzaga (which they should).
5 – CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT SIZZLERS: WILL THEY FIZZLE?
UCLA hadn't done all that much of consequence all season. Iowa State did well in non-conference play but did not separate itself from the crowd over the course of the Big 12 regular season. Both teams caught fire in their respective conference tournaments, pushing their way toward high seeds. Yet, UCLA head coach Steve Alford and Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg have not yet made the Sweet 16 at a power conference program. (Alford did the deed in 1999… at Southwest Missouri State.) These teams could be great, or they could flame out — with DeAndre Kane of Iowa State epitomizing the volatility of these kinds of teams.
In 2011, Connecticut's run through the Big East Tournament propelled the Huskies to a high seed and a national title, but that's not the norm for a team that isn't a top-two seed. Iowa State and UCLA will once again test the "hot teams in conference tournaments" angle when the Big Dance begins.
4 – THE TEAMS FROM THIN LEAGUES (WITH THE EXCEPTION OF FLORIDA)
The Mountain West got only two teams into the tournament. The SEC got only three teams into the field. The Big East got four, but might have had only three if Providence hadn't beaten Creighton in the tournament final on Saturday night. The non-Florida teams in these leagues (the Gators have proven themselves independent of their conference) are mysteries, precisely because they spent the better part of two months playing grossly inferior competition. How will they perform in March? You might have your strongly-held set of opinions, but you have to wait to see if they hold up under tournament pressure and chaos.
3 – LOUISVILLE
Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin might not believe that Louisville was seeded fourth, but as said above, the Cardinals received a favorable draw. Yet, this is a team whose best non-conference win was Southern Mississippi. It's a team that got swept by Memphis and merely split with Cronin's Bearcats. Louisville was really good at beating Connecticut (3 for 3) and SMU (2 for 2). Almost everyone trusts Rick Pitino at tournament time — and rightly so — but this team has not done the heavy lifting of last year's national champion. How the Cardinals handle the pressure of defending their national title will certainly rate as one of the three biggest stories of this year's tournament.
2 – INJURY-DISRUPTED TEAMS HOPING TO REGAIN FORM
The Michigan State Spartans and Syracuse Orange both got knocked off track at different points in the season due to key injuries. Michigan State absorbed more injuries, but the Spartans certainly looked whole and unified and just plain nasty in the Big Ten Tournament. That could just be a tease — Michigan, after all, seemed to have tired legs against Michigan State in the Big Ten final — but what if it's the real thing, the real version of the Spartans that emerged in November and December?
Syracuse didn't get a chance to play multiple games in the ACC Tournament, but Jerami Grant is indeed back from the shelf, and that simple fact could enable the Orange to play their way back into form on the first weekend of the tournament, thereby paving the way for Jim Boeheim's team to hit its stride in the second weekend of the tournament… as it did last year in Washington, D.C., against Indiana. How Michigan State and Syracuse answer the bell in March Madness will be fascinating to watch, regardless of the final outcome(s).
Kansas — likely without Joel Embiid for at least the first weekend of the NCAAs — is its own separate case. The Jayhawks should have a very tough battle on their hands with New Mexico in the round of 32.
1- FLORIDA AND WICHITA STATE: STANDING AGAINST RECENT HISTORY
The facts speak plainly on this: You don't want to carry a long winning streak into the NCAA tournament if you want to win the national title, at least over the past 38 years. Wichita State has a 34-game winning streak, Florida a 26-game winning streak. These teams would be bucking a lot of history if they cut down the nets on Monday, April 7. Moreover, they're on the opposite sides of the larger bracket.
The South Regional winner plays the East Regional winner in one national semifinal, while the West and Midwest winners play in the other. With Florida in the South and Wichita State in the Midwest, the Gators and Shockers could contest the title.
You might think that a Florida-Louisville game is both the majority pick and the sexiest possible national title game, and you'd have a point there. However, the matchup that would truly rate as one of the most historically resonant national championship game pairings is Gators-Shockers. If that's the final battle in JerryWorld, the sport of college basketball won't ever be quite the same.
Hyperbolic, you say? Eh, maybe a little bit… but not all that much.
Enjoy the games, and more specifically, enjoy the games even if your bracket gets ruined. Life's too short to curse how your bracket looks if you're captivated by thrilling and engrossing college basketball action.