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Selection Sunday Was Good to the ACC, but Not to USC and Saint Mary’s

Three thoughts on this year’s NCAA tournament field

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After months of games and what felt like hours of in-studio buildup, the 2018 NCAA tournament field is finally set. Sunday’s selection show was a dragged-out affair with a new, larger set and a live studio audience that made the broadcast resemble an episode of The Price Is Right more than a typical bracket reveal.

The show opened to mild applause from the hundred-plus fans in attendance before the teams in the Big Dance were revealed in alphabetical order—something stressed repeatedly—and the matchups were unveiled. The result was a messy, boring 13-minute stretch in which the hosts named the teams one by one, only pausing to remind the audience that the order of teams was, in fact, being presented alphabetically. And just in case you forgot since you started reading this paragraph: The order was alphabetical.

Then, the real fun began. The 1-seeds were Virginia, Villanova, Xavier, and Kansas—all of whom entered the day projected to hear their names called on the tourney’s top line. While Xavier, Villanova, and Kansas should all be expected to reach the Elite Eight, Virginia—the tournament’s top seed—could have trouble early, as its road to the Final Four could go through either no. 4 seed Arizona or no. 5 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Both sets of Wildcats are conference champions, and both have the talent to make a deep run in the South region.

Here are three more thoughts on the 2018 bracket.

1. USC and Saint Mary’s Were the Tournament’s Biggest Snubs

The silver lining to the show’s new format was that bubble teams learned their fate early on. Rather than waiting anxiously to see if they appeared as a no. 10 or no. 11 seed, they could simply wait to see if their names were called at the corresponding alphabetical position. Oh, the list jumps straight from UCLA to Virginia Tech? Sorry, Southern Cal.

USC was the last bubble team to learn its unfortunate fate. The 23-11 Trojans finished second in the Pac-12 this season but were passed over in favor or Arizona State, Syracuse, Texas, and Oklahoma—all teams that went 8-10 in conference play. USC entered the season with Final Four aspirations, but the FBI investigation into the sport’s underbelly compromised the eligibility of sophomore centerpiece De’Anthony Melton. If only they’d had some help from the highest-profile baller on campus.

Saint Mary’s, another bubble team, fell one game short of winning the regular-season West Coast Conference title and had a signature road win (74-71 at Gonzaga on January 18) on its résumé. Unfortunately for the 28-5 Gaels, it wasn’t enough to steal a bid. The weekend’s surprise conference champions like Davidson also pushed some at-large candidates like Middle Tennessee State, Notre Dame, and Louisville off the board.

2. The ACC Led the Country in Tourney Bids for the Third Straight Year

The ACC led the way for the third consecutive postseason (the conference tied for the most bids in 2016, but led outright in 2017 and 2018), with nine of the conference’s teams earning spots in the tournament: Virginia (no. 1 seed), Duke (2), North Carolina (2), Clemson (5), Miami (6), Virginia Tech (8), NC State (9), Florida State (9), and Syracuse (11).

They’re followed by the SEC (8), the Big 12 (7), the Big East (6)—which has two no. 1 seeds—and the Big Ten (4). The four teams placed into the field by the Big Ten (Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, and Ohio State) are the league’s lowest total since 2008, when the conference had three fewer teams.

3. The Midwest Looks Like the Region of Death

The committee didn’t make many egregious seeding mistakes (yes, I hear you Oklahoma haters), but a few teams have to be feeling good after seeing their respective draws. Cincinnati, which claimed the American Athletic Conference championship just before the selection show, was named the no. 2 seed in the South region and given Tennessee (arguably the weakest no. 3 seed in the tournament) as its potential Sweet 16 challenger. The Bearcats might play like a watered-down version of Virginia (their region’s top seed) but they’ve put together one of the best seasons in school history. And if they can capitalize on their early fortunes, the dream year may not end for quite a while.

The Midwest region appears to be the most difficult at first glance, while the East seems to be the weakest from top to bottom. North Carolina could have a hard time against Robert Williams and Texas A&M if the Aggies make it through Providence, and a Duke–Michigan State rematch of November’s Champions Classic in the Sweet 16 should make for must-watch TV.

Of course, with possible upsets brewing at every turn (here’s looking at you, New Mexico State), the only certainty is that March will bring surprises. Get ready, the madness is about to begin.