March Madness is bigger this year. Better? Most of the Big East Conference thinks so. Colorado, Virginia Tech, St. Mary's and a few others would surely disagree.
The unveiling of the NCAA tournament bracket on Sunday included an unprecedented 11 teams from a single conference — the Big East — and the usual number of snubs and disappointments despite the increase from 65 to 68 teams.
"It's mind-boggling," said coach Tad Boyle of Colorado, widely recognized as the most aggrieved of the teams left out. "Don't have any control over it so we won't whine and cry about it."
Leading the way for the Big East was Pittsburgh, seeded first in the Southeast even though it didn't win a game in the conference's postseason tournament.
The Panthers (27-5) will need to win six in a row to cut down the nets at the Final Four in Houston on April 4, when America's biggest office pool will come to an end.
"What we've done in the past is good, but it doesn't mean a lot once you start playing in the tournament," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "We've got to go and play good basketball, and we've got to get better in these couple of days."
Ohio State (32-2) of the Big Ten was the tournament's top seed overall, with Kansas (32-2) of the Big 12 next.
Defending champion Duke aced out another Big East team, Notre Dame, for the fourth and final No. 1 seed.
Led by one of the country's best guards, Nolan Smith, the Blue Devils (30-4) are trying to become the first team since Florida in 2006-07 to repeat as national champions.
The tournament looks different this year, thanks to the addition of three more at-large teams that will open play in the "First Four" on Tuesday and Wednesday. Two of those games pit the last at-large teams to make the field — UAB (22-9) vs. Clemson (21-11) and Southern Cal (19-14) vs. Virginia Commonwealth (23-11).
Those, along with every other game of the entire tournament, will be aired in their entirety on four networks.
Before the start of the season, TBS, TNT and truTV joined CBS in signing a new, 14-year TV contract worth $10.8 billion. The games used to all be shown on CBS, with the network deciding which part of the country got which games. Now, the viewers can pick and choose from all of them.
But all the added money and TV coverage doesn't make the second-guessing go away.
As always on Selection Sunday, there were plenty of head-scratchers.
There were teams that surprised some people by getting in: VCU, UAB and Clemson.
There were teams that surprised some people by getting passed over: Colorado, Virginia Tech, Harvard, Alabama and St. Mary's.
The St. Mary's snub may have produced a first: A coach who prefers college football's widely derided way of determining a champion over college basketball's.
"As a coach, as players, all you want to know is that you're given a fair deal," Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "You need to go by the numbers, exactly like they do in the BCS" — the Bowl Championship Series.
Selection committee chairman Gene Smith of Ohio State said members investigated the resumes of the bubble teams as thoroughly as he could remember. Their investigation found there was room for five at-large teams with 14 losses; in the 26 years previously — dating to when the bracket was first expanded to 64 teams — there had been a grand total of six.
"When we were looking at those teams, there were a number of quality teams on the board that we had to consider, and we just didn't have enough slots obviously for all the teams that were in, even though we had three more slots this year," he said.
The Big East had no complaints. Nearly three-quarters of the conference made it — another banner day for the league that was formed for basketball in 1979 and gets credit for helping transform the sport's postseason into a three-week event that brings America together through office pools and the irresistible love of underdogs who sometimes hit it big.
Last year, the ultimate underdog was Butler, the team from the 4,500-student campus that came two points short of beating Duke in the title game. The Bulldogs (23-9) weren't as strong this season but still made the draw and will face No. 9 Old Dominion on Thursday.
Other interesting pairings include:
—Louisville vs. Morehead State, a pair of teams from Kentucky that must travel to Denver for their first game.
—UNLV vs. Illinois in a meeting of coach Lon Kruger's current team against his former one.
—San Diego State in the same bracket as Michigan, meaning Aztecs coach Steve Fisher may have to face the school he left in controversy after he coached the Fab Five with the Wolverines.
—Notre Dame was a bit disappointed to receive a No. 2 seed, but has short trip to Chicago for its first game against Akron.
"I think we had a lot of argument for a 1, quite frankly," coach Mike Brey said. "We've been on a pretty good run. Just erase the numbers now and look at the matchups. You take the seeds away from the teams' names now, and you've got to go try to win a tournament in Chicago."
The Big Ten placed seven teams, including a pair — Penn State and Michigan State — with 14 losses each. Led by freshman big man Jared Sullinger, Ohio State got rewarded with opening-week games down the road in Cleveland. The Buckeyes open against the winner between Texas-San Antonio and Alabama State, a pair of 16th-seeded teams that will also play in the First Four early in the week.
The Big 12 and Southeastern Conference got five teams each while the Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast only got four. The ACC list included the usuals, Duke and North Carolina, along with Florida State and Clemson, but not Boston College, which finished 20-12.
"I'll put our top two against anybody. I'll put our middle pack against anybody else's middle pack," BC coach Steve Donahue said. "But, yet, there's 11 from one league and 3½, basically, from another. I don't see the drastic difference. I'm being honest."
Of the 37 at-large teams, 30 came from the top six conferences and seven came from the so-called mid-majors — the conferences that supply the underdogs and unknowns that have turned the NCAA tournament into what it is. The seven were one fewer than last year, even though there were three more spots available.
This year also marks the return of Big East tournament champion Connecticut, along with UCLA, Arizona and 2009 national champion North Carolina, a quartet of perennials that missed the tournament last year and led many experts to call the 2010 field one of the weakest of all time.
Some of those same thoughts are being echoed again this year — and the teams that got left out are shouting the loudest.
"What I'd like to know is if there's ever been a team that's won nine games in the ACC and played the non-conference schedule that we played and beat a No. 1 seed and still didn't get in," said Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, who has found himself venting for four straight years now on Selection Sunday. "I'd love to see the research on that."
- Big East Conference