By Chris Dufresne Los Angeles Times
Wichita State wrapped its perfect 34-0 season on March 9 only a few hours after UCLA mailed in one of the worst performances in program history — an 18-point defeat at lowly Washington State the previous night.
You never could have imagined then that UCLA would end up packing flip-flops and baggy NCAA shorts for San Diego.
Or, that Wichita State would get pickle-jar stuffed into the “group of death” region, with one of the “easier” games a possible first-weekend matchup against Kentucky.
Sunday’s announcement of the 68-team NCAA field proved that it’s important to keep playing through the whistle.
By storming back from the Pullman debacle and winning the Pac-12 tournament, UCLA rocketed to the No. 4 line and avoided baggage-claim checks in Orlando, Raleigh, Spokane, or maybe Milwaukee.
A key decade-old NCAA bracket adjustment known as the “pod system” allowed the selection committee to put UCLA and Arizona in the same first-weekend city.
Arizona and UCLA can wave to each other in the Gaslamp Quarter without the chance of playing each other until the NCAA title game in Arlington, Texas — and wouldn’t that be something?
Arizona is No. 1 in the West and UCLA is No. 4 in the South.
This clever NCAA “pod” manipulation is still confusing to many but was implemented just for times like these when both Arizona and UCLA deserved some home time-zone advantage.
It turned the San Diego pod into a party that should boost attendance and also includes West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga.
There are winners and losers in every NCAA field, but it’s all just speculation until scenarios are actually played out.
Florida defeated Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference championship game Sunday to wrap up the No. 1 overall NCAA seeding. It marked the Gators’ first SEC tournament win since 2007, the year they won their second of back-to-back NCAA titles.
The SEC is weak this year, with only three NCAA entries, but that’s not Florida’s fault.
Billy Donovan’s team is No. 1 in the South and will be channeled through Orlando for first-round action, probably on its way to the regional final in Memphis.
Other top spots were awarded to Arizona (West), Virginia (East) and Wichita State (Midwest).
Virginia (28-6) capped a brilliant season by winning its first Atlantic Coast Conference tournament title since 1976 with a victory over some team named Duke.
The Cavaliers’ sweep of the ACC regular-season and tournament titles allowed the selection committee to make them the last No. 1. It became easier when Villanova lost to Seton Hall (17-17) in the Big East tournament.
Committee Chairman Ron Wellman confirmed Michigan also spit the final No. 1 bid by lopsidedly losing Sunday’s Big Ten title game to fast-charging Michigan State, which earned a No. 4 seeding in the West.
Wellman also confirmed North Carolina State was the last team in and Southern Methodist the last team out.
The people who claimed all season that Wichita State’s undefeated run was suspect because the Shockers played in the weak Missouri Valley Conference can rest easy. The committee put Wichita State on notice by making it No. 1 in the Midwest but surrounding the Shockers with sharks.
On bracket paper, this is the toughest region by far. The top four teams in the Midwest are Wichita State, Michigan, Duke and Louisville.
What, are you kidding?
Three of those schools advanced to last year’s Final Four and the one that didn’t was Duke.
Michigan was in line for a No. 1 until Sunday’s second half and Louisville is the defending national champion and, arguably, the nation’s hottest team after winning the American Athletic Conference.
Many pundits, along with Louisville coach Rick Pitino, think the Cardinals deserved a higher calling.
Louisville is moving to the mighty ACC next season, but was stuck one last season in the cobbled-together AAC, the patchwork spin-off of the former Big East.
The conference hasn’t been around long enough to have its first company picnic, and what if that cost Louisville a higher seeding?
“I can’t talk about the strength of the league,” Pitino said during the new conference’s first postseason tournament. “If you want to blame anyone, blame football, don’t blame us.”
Wellman countered that Louisville ended up where it deserved to be.
“You could easily predict they could be a national championship contender again this year,” Wellman said on a Sunday night conference call with reporters. “But the committee’s responsibility is to look at the entire body of work. We felt they were slotted appropriately on the No. 4 line.”
None of this is good news for Midwest front-runner Wichita State, which opens play Friday in St. Louis against the Cal Poly-Texas Southern winner.
Never mind that Wichita State got to the Final Four last year, defeating No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Ohio State in the West. A few experts will deem the Shockers ripe for becoming the first No. 1 to lose to a No. 16, even though the all-time win-loss record stands at 116-0.
Wellman acknowledged there are some historic name-brand basketball schools in the region but said, “I think we have achieved balance in all the regions.”
Maybe he was looking at a different bracket.
If Wichita State survives its opener, it gets a second-round game against the Kentucky-Kansas State winner.
Most years, if Kentucky is seeded eighth the coach needs to start updating his resume. And while this Kentucky squad has certainly disappointed after starting as preseason No. 1, it still has eight McDonald’s All-Americans and is coached by John Calipari.
Kentucky also came within two points Sunday of defeating No. 1 Florida in the SEC title game, losing 61-60.
Kansas State, the other second-game option for Wichita State, is a 20-12 team out of the nation’s best conference, the Big 12.
Virginia, if it wins its first game, meets the Memphis-George Washington winner.
Anyone think the committee was doing Wichita State any favors?