Today the annual madness of wall-to-wall college basketball explodes on the scene, with down-to-the-buzzer nail-biters assured and instant heartbreak weighing in the balance for the 64 teams worthy enough to make it this far as participants in the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, a.k.a. March Madness.
Six teams representing the Big 12 Conference are part of this year's field of 64. The NCAA Tournament field is comprised of the champions of 31 Division I conferences and 37 at-large teams. Four play-in games determine the final four teams in the field. This year the eight teams that vied for the last four sports were Vermont, Lamar, Western Kentucky, Mississippi Valley State, BYU, Iona, California and South Florida.
The Missouri Tigers received the automatic-qualifier bid from the Big 12 by virtue of winning the Big 12 Tournament championship, even though the Kansas Jayhawks were the league champions for the regular season for the eighth consecutive year. Both the Tigers and the Jayhawks were awarded No. 2 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, Missouri in the West Region and Kansas in the Midwest.
The region assignments themselves created some controversy, particularly with Mizzou fans who felt they should have been placed in the Midwest instead of Kansas because of having a better record, higher national ranking and, oh yea, the fact that the Tigers were the victors in the postseason conference tournament held last week in Kansas City. The Sweet Sixteen round for the Midwest Region will be contested in St. Louis. Instead of Missouri, however, it will potentially be Kansas that gets to play in St. Louis in the regional semifinals.
The Jayhawks received one of the five at-large bids that went to teams from the Big 12, along with Sunflower State rival Kansas State. The three other conference teams that are part of the 64-team field that sets out on the dream road to the Final Four beginning at midday today are Baylor, Iowa State and Texas.
Baylor is seeded third in the South Region, where No. 1 overall tournament seed Kentucky resides; Iowa State, making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2005, is seeded No. 8 in the South. Texas, making its 14th consecutive tournament appearance under coach Rick Barnes, is the No. 11 seed in the East region, where the top seed is Syracuse.
Kansas State, 21-10 on the year and the Big 12's fifth-place finisher, gets the ball rolling in the Big Dance, as far as Big 12 participants are concerned. The Wildcats tip off in one of the early games on Thursday from Pittsburgh, Pa. Their opponent is the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles (25-8) out of Conference USA. The Golden Eagles are coached by former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy, who made two NCAA Tournament appearances with the Cyclones.
The Wildcats' strength in the paint, on the boards and on defense should be enough to get them to the second round, but they will have their hands full with Southern Mississippi, which features balanced scoring and bench strength. K-State will need everything in coach Frank Martin's arsenal just to survive round one. As an eight/nine team in the NCAA Tournament, however, surviving your first game draws you the worst possible second-round matchup, a date with East Region No. 1 seed Syracuse. Unfortunately, that's where K-State's season will come to a heartbreaking end.
As the three seed in the South, Baylor will face 14th-seeded South Dakota State in its first-round matchup in Albuquerque, also on Thursday. The Jackrabbits are the champions of the Summit Conference. Both teams have identical 27-7 season records, although the level of competition in the Big 12 is unquestionably stronger. It may not mean anything, but Baylor's seven losses are all to Big 12 opponents. The Bears are a perfect 15-0 against foes outside of the Big 12.
Baylor should get beyond the first weekend, and if that reality plays out for the Bears, they are likely to find No. 2-seeded Duke waiting in the South Region semifinal round, followed by Kentucky, if they're that good and lucky.
The final game on Thursday involving a Big 12 team is another eight- and nine-seed matchup with Iowa State (22-10), the higher seed, going against defending national champion Connecticut (20-13) in Louisville, Ky. This will be an extremely tough challenge for the Cyclones. UConn is not as good this year as last, but they are definitely tournament tested, which will give the reigning champs a decided leg up on upstart Iowa State. No. 1 seed Kentucky awaits the winner on Saturday.
Back to the two signature teams from our area, Missouri (30-4) appears to have the best path to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans. Making the relatively safe assumption that the Tigers will get by opening-round opponent Norfolk State (25-9) on Friday in Omaha, they will face the winner of the 7-10 game between Florida (23-10) and Virginia (22-9) in the round of 32. If the seeds hold true, Mizzou would then go up against third-seeded Marquette and, most likely, Michigan State, in the West Region final.
Missouri is a very dangerous team in this tournament and extremely difficult to prepare for. The Tigers are unlike any other team in the field in that they are extremely quick and will more than make up for their lack of size and length with exceptional shooting and scoring proficiency. I would not be surprised to see Missouri shoot right through the first four rounds and be one of the four teams headed to New Orleans in a couple of weeks.
Kansas 27-6), on the other hand, has to be thinking about the rude treatment the Jayhawks have received from so-called mid-major opponents in tournaments of the recent past, and as a No. 1 seed. Barring a major upset, the Jayhawks should make it to the Elite 16 (I'd be shocked if they didn't), but I'm not at all comfortable picking Bill Self's guys to advance beyond the Elite Eight, if they even make it that far.
Kansas' likely opponent if they were to make it to the Midwest Region championship game would be Roy Williams' (yea, that guy) Tar Heels of North Carolina. ACC champion North Carolina may not be as good as previously advertised, especially given injuries to key personnel, but Kansas is also more vulnerable this season than in the past.
The final team carrying a Big 12 banner in the NCAA tourney is Texas (20-13), which drew Cincinnati (24-10) out of the Big East as its opening-game opponent. The Longhorns are a good but far from great team that will probably be one and done, but definitely won't make it to the Sweet Sixteen.
As much as I'd like to see two Big 12 teams in the Final Four for the first time since 2002 (Oklahoma and Kansas), I don't think that will happen. And if you're really a dreamer, how about the prospect of a Missouri-Kansas NCAA national championship final? It's certainly possible, but candidly not a high probability.
What a way that would be to end the longstanding Border War basketball series between these two bitter rivals. I don't think you could create a more ideal scenario for a series finale.
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