An injury hurts as much as a loss in the days before the brackets are drawn up for March Madness. Syracuse endured both and will have to rack up some major frequent flier miles to make a run to the Final Four.
Kansas, Kentucky and Duke won their conference tournaments and the top seeding that goes with it when the selection committee rolled out its 65-team bracket Sunday.
The Orangemen, meanwhile, were ranked fourth of the four No. 1 seeds and sent West after losing early in the Big East tournament after center Arinze Onuaku injured his right quadriceps.
Their road to the Final Four, set for April 3-5 in Indianapolis, will have to go through Salt Lake City. No team has lost its first game in a conference tournament and gone on to win the national title.
“We’re proud to be a No. 1 seed,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “This team has worked extremely hard, been consistent all year. Obviously, the tournament is always going to be challenging. It’ll be challenging right off the bat.”
America’s largest, three-week office pool starts getting sorted out Tuesday with an opening-round game between Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop. The tournament goes into full swing Thursday, with Kansas the No. 1 seed.
The Big East led the field with eight teams, which tied its own record and is the third time the conference has put that many teams in the tournament.
But winning the toughest conference’s regular-season title wasn’t the accomplishment it might have been for Syracuse. The Orangemen (28-4) lost to Georgetown in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. That pushed them down, below Duke, which was expected to vie with West Virginia for the final No. 1 spot.
Winning the conference tournament helped vault Duke over Syracuse.
“Once again, we’re talking about the entire season,” selection chairman Dan Guerrero said. “We place value on that. Obviously, the big center for Syracuse got banged up. That’s an issue to some degree.”
Before the committee even met, there was no question there will be a new national champion.
Defending titlist North Carolina was on a long list of traditional powerhouses that didn’t receive spots in this year’s tournament. That list also included UCLA, Indiana, Connecticut and Arizona, which saw its NCAA-leading string of appearances snapped at 25 years.
It will mark the first time since 1966 that all five of those big-name schools failed to make the tournament.
According to the committee, Kansas (32-2) is the favorite to win its second national title in three years.
Leading the Jayhawks in the Midwest Region are Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, two key pieces in the team’s 2008 title run. The Jayhawks earned the overall No. 1 seed based on an 18-1 record against Big 12 foes, which includes three wins over Kansas State, a team in the mix for a top seed until falling to KU in the conference final Saturday.
Kansas opens Thursday against No. 16 Lehigh in the Midwest regional. No. 1 seeds are undefeated in the first round since 1985, when the field first was expanded to 64 teams.
Other first-round games in the Midwest are: No. 8 UNLV vs. No. 9 Northern Iowa; No. 5 Michigan State vs. No. 12 New Mexico State; No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 13 Houston; No. 2 Ohio State against No. 15 UC-Santa Barbara; No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 10 Georgia Tech; No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 14 Ohio and No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 San Diego State.
Last week, Guerrero said the committee wouldn’t include teams’ performances in their last 12 games — a longtime staple of its expansive criteria that was deemed as carrying too much weight. How closely the committee toed that line, however, was still in question.
Onuaku hasn’t practiced since the injury, but is expected back for his team’s opener Friday against No. 16 Vermont, and Syracuse will play in Buffalo for its first two rounds.
“They get to play closest to home in the first and second rounds,” Guerrero said. “I anticipate they’ll do well.”
Other West region games include No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Florida State, No. 4 Vanderbilt against No. 13 Murray State and No. 5 Butler against No. 12 UTEP, one of the bubble teams. The other side of the bracket pits No. 2 Kansas State against No. 15 North Texas, No. 7 BYU against No. 10 Florida, No. 3 Pittsburgh against No. 14 Oakland and No. 6 Xavier against No. 11 Minnesota.
Along with UTEP, Minnesota and Florida were considered among the bubble teams most at-risk.
Led by freshman John Wall, Kentucky (32-2) won its 26th SEC tournament and is in good position for its eighth national title.
In his first year with the Wildcats, John Calipari became the first coach to post five straight 30-win seasons, and he’ll need six more to bring the first title back to the Bluegrass State since 1998.
Kentucky, winner of 13 of its last 14 games, opens Thursday against East Tennessee State. The winner of that game will play the winner of No. 8 Texas vs. No. 9 Wake Forest.
Other East region games: No. 5 Temple against No. 12 Cornell and No. 4 Wisconsin against No. 13 Wofford. The other side of the bracket has No. 2 West Virginia against No. 15 Morgan State and No. 7 Clemson against No. 10 Missouri, while No. 3 New Mexico plays No. 14 Montana and No. 6 Marquette plays No. 11 Washington, the Pac-10 tournament champion.
Duke and coach Mike Krzyzewski are seeking their first trip to the Final Four since 2004 and first national title since 2001. Led by Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler, the Blue Devils (29-5) have won 12 of their last 13 and will open Friday against the winner of the play-in game.
The rest of the South region: No. 8 California vs. No. 9 Louisville; No. 5 Texas A&M vs. No. 12 Utah State; No. 4 Purdue vs. No. 13 Siena; No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Robert Morris; No. 7 Richmond vs. No. 10 St. Mary’s; No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 14 Sam Houston State and No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Old Dominion.
Among the bubble teams missing the tournament were Virginia Tech, Illinois and Mississippi State, which lost twice in overtime to Kentucky, including a 75-74 loss in the SEC tournament final Sunday.