We have a bracket, and now we have three days to talk about it. Let’s start immediately.
Here are 10 immediate thoughts on this year’s field of 68:
1. The West is the region of death
Headlined by Kansas, UCLA, Gonzaga and UConn, in my eyes, the West Region is clearly the strongest of the four. All four of the teams are currently ranked in the top 10 on Ken Pom, with the ninth-ranked Jayhawks actually being the least well-regarded of the quarter (UCLA is No. 2, UConn is No. 3 and Gonzaga is No. 8).
Kansas being seeded behind Houston not only forced them into this loaded region, but it kept them from being able to play their second weekend games in Kansas City. Oh, and it also might result in them having to face one of the most talented 8-seeds of all-time in Arkansas in the second round.
If the Jayhawks don’t get housed by 20 against Texas on Saturday night, none of this probably happens. Don’t let anyone tell you conference tournaments don’t matter.
2. Rutgers got snubbed
Every year on this day there’s a heavy debate about the last teams included and excluded in and from the field of 68. Every year, that debate is met with a “they can only blame themselves for putting themselves in that situation” galaxy brain retort.
Everyone knows that bubble teams could have done more during the regular season to solidify their spot in the Big Dance. That doesn’t mean that we can’t still have a meaningful discussion about the merits of a team that was left out of the tournament versus a team that heard its name called.
FOR INSTANCE ...
Rutgers, which was the second team left out of the field according to the Committee (Oklahoma State was the first), certainly seems to have a better case than Nevada and maybe one or two others who will be a part of March Madness.
The Scarlet Knights own a road win over Purdue, which might be the best win any team in the country notched this season. They had four total Quad 1 road victories — three more than Nevada and Mississippi State and four more than NC State. They took down Michigan in their Big Ten tournament opener and then were narrowly (and controversially) defeated by eventual tournament champion Purdue. And they’re the highest-ranked team on Ken Pom (No. 35) to be left out of the field, ranking higher than 12 other teams that earned at-large bids.
Ultimately, Rutgers was done in by three Quad 3 defeats and a 3-6 record after losing glue guy forward Mawot Mag for the season to a torn ACL. The third of those Quad 3 defeats only became a thing after Seton Hall slipped in the NET rankings following their last second defeat to DePaul in the Big East tournament first round.
A goaltend call that became a non-goaltend call by a matter of inches can be the difference between euphoria and heartbreak this time of year. Even if you weren’t one of the two teams actually playing in the game.
3. The Sunday conference championship games (probably) mattered (a little)
One long-held criticism of the NCAA tournament selection process has been that the Sunday conference tournament championship games occur too close to the reveal of the bracket for the Committee to take them into proper consideration.
While that thought has certainly seemed to carry water over the years, in 2023, the championship games seem to have played at least a small part in determining who the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed was.
Alabama, Kansas and Houston all shared similar resumes entering the weekend, and each had an almost equally strong case to be the first team to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. So how did the Committee pick between the three? Well, while it might not have been quite this simple, Kansas got blasted by Texas Saturday night in the Big 12 tournament final, Houston gave a lackluster performance Sunday afternoon in a loss to Memphis, while at the same time Alabama was hammering Texas A&M to capture the SEC crown.
Bing, bang, boom: Alabama is the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed for the first time in program history. The top seed in the South Region, the Tide will play their first two games in Birmingham and then head to Louisville to try and get two more and advance to the Final Four.
The flip-side of this argument? Houston’s performance coming on Sunday instead of Saturday may have allowed it to stay ahead of Kansas despite having 10 fewer Quad 1 wins than the Jayhawks. This is huge because KU being the No. 3 overall seed instead of the No. 2 overall seed will prevent them from playing their potential Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Kansas City.
4. The Midwest Region could have some juicy first weekend matchups
One of the more surprising seed assignments was Texas A&M getting a 7 despite finishing second in the SEC and advancing to the SEC tournament title game. The Aggies’ loss could be the viewing public’s gain, as A&M’s seed sets up a spicy potential second round game against old arch-rival Texas. Buzz Williams’ team will need to beat Penn State first, and the Longhorns will have to take care of a tricky 15-seed in Patriot League champion Colgate.
In the same half of that region we also have the potential for a Xavier-Pitt matchup that would pit a resurgent Sean Miller against the program where he first rose to prominence. In order for the to happen, the Panthers will have to beat Mississippi State in a First Four game and then upset Iowa State in the main draw.
5. A 15-seed is going to (at least) push a 2-seed to the brink
A healthy amount of the best mid/low-major teams in the country held serve during Championship Week and cut down the nets in their respective conference tournaments. The result of that is that we have even more strength in the 13-15 lines than in most years.
The best evidence of this is the 15-line, where Colgate and Vermont — two teams that dominated their leagues and two programs with championship pedigrees — both reside. The other 15-seeds, UNC Asheville and Princeton, are also programs with more than a bit of March history and the ability to put the fear of God into their first round opponents.
Thursday and/or Friday will not be an enjoyable experience for at least one team on the two line.
6. Rick Pitino will face a familiar foe in a familiar place
Rick Pitino might be getting a head-start on his rumored return to the Big East. The former Louisville head coach will lead 13th-seeded Iona against No. 4 seed UConn in a first round game that will be played in Albany, a place where the New York native (and next St. John’s head coach?) is certain to have plenty of fan support.
Pitino had a ton of success against the Huskies during his time at Louisville, including sweeping the eventual national champions in 2013-14. His team’s 33-point win over UConn in 2014 is the most lopsided loss an eventual national champion has ever taken.
7. The East Region could get wild
If you’re looking for one region to get completely wild and produce some second weekend matchups that don’t seem to make any sense, look no further than the East.
It starts at the top with Purdue, a team headlined by likely national Player of the Year Zach Edey, but one that also has failed to get reliable guard play at key moments throughout the year. Marquette and Kansas State (the 2 and 3 seeds) have been rock solid, but teams that have dramatically achieved against their preseason expectations have a history of making early NCAA tournament exits.
No. 4 seed Tennessee plays tremendous defense but can’t score. No. 5 seed Duke has been hot as of late, but got hot in an extremely down ACC, starts four freshmen, and has a 35-year-old-first year head coach. No. 6 seed Kentucky has been inconsistent all year long and John Calipari hasn’t been getting it done in March in recent years.
Friendly reminder: Every single Final Four but one since 2012 has featured at least one team seeded No. 7 or worse. Since 2011, a total of 11 teams seeded seventh or worse have crashed the season’s final weekend. Don’t be shocked if another one comes out of this region.
8. Florida Atlantic got Nevada into the NCAA tournament
The last of the so-called potential “bid thieves” bit the dust on Saturday when UAB was soundly defeated by a Florida Atlantic team that would have made the Big Dance regardless of how they fared in the Conference USA tournament. Had the Owls not been so stellar then Nevada, the last team to receive an at-large bid into the field of 68, would be staring at its draw in the NIT.
Steve Alford owes Dusty May a beer or 12 at some point.
9. The Mountain West is getting another shot
Speaking of Nevada being the controversial final inclusion in the field, their selection makes four Mountain West teams in this year’s field. The Wolfpack joins No. 5 seed San Diego State and 10-seeds Utah State and Boise State.
The Mountain West also had four teams in the tournament a year ago ... and all four were eliminated before the Big Dance’s first Friday. Not only that, but all four teams failed to reach the 70-point mark, with Wyoming and Boise State both failing to get to 60.
Despite its status as a near perennial multi-bid league, the Mountain West is just 3-15 in the NCAA tournament since 2015 and has sent just one team to the tournament’s second weekend over that same time span. Since 2016, the conference is 1-11 in first round games.
Last year’s embarrassment made the Mountain West just the third conference in NCAA tournament history to finish 0-4 or worse in a single March Madness.
And yet, hope springs eternal this time of year.
10. Duke-Oral Roberts is the best matchup of the first round
The darlings of the 2021 tournament versus the team America loves to hate. The only team to run the table in conference play in the most famous upset spot of the tournament. Scoring sensation Max Abmas against a Duke team that has been winning with defense under first year head coach Jon Scheyer.
This one has everything you could possibly want in a 5/12 game, and I would be shocked if it doesn’t deliver the goods on Thursday.