By Billy Witz
When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament pairings were announced Sunday night, it served as one big welcome mat for the sport.
Duke and Kentucky, along with the Ivy League, represented by Yale, are back for the first time since 2019. Also returning are a host of super seniors like Mitch Lightfoot, who first suited up for Kansas in 2016. And the doors were thrown open for Jacksonville State, which got the only bid from the ASUN Conference despite losing in its tournament semifinal game.
The most welcome return, though, will not be for blue bloods or Cinderellas, familiar coaches or rising stars. It will be for the pageantry that gives the tournament its flavor — the bands, the cheerleaders, the pro arenas filled with roaring fans who eagerly awaited Sunday’s announcement to find out where they needed to book hotel rooms.
After the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 tournament and muted the 2021 edition, which was anchored in Indianapolis, this year’s event is set up to regather a treasured element — its atmosphere.
There was a hint of what lies ahead, and what had been missing, at Madison Square Garden late last week when sellout crowds for the Big East Conference Tournament brought the old building to life — particularly late Friday when Villanova held off Connecticut in an old-school Big East throwdown that Villanova coach Jay Wright called “a basketball junkie’s dream.”
He was not the only one who looked forward to playing in buildings with juice.
“I’m really going to appreciate it, especially with what we went through last year with limited fans and being in a bubble,” said Creighton senior guard Alex O’Connell, who played in two tournaments at Duke before transferring and reaching the round of 16 last year with the Bluejays, another Big East program.
His team’s run ended not before a raucous crowd in a cavernous arena, but in front of a restricted number of masked fans far from the court in the quaint Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler’s home arena and where the climactic scenes in the movie “Hoosiers” were filmed. There were no bands, mascots or cheerleaders, so the most audible sounds were the squeaks of sneakers on the hardwood.
Creighton lost that afternoon to Gonzaga, which the same as now was the top overall seed in the bracket. The Zags, who were chasing a perfect season last year, will merely be pursuing their first national championship this season when they open in the West region in Portland, Oregon.
The other top seeds are Arizona in the South region, Kansas in the Midwest and reigning champion Baylor, which routed Gonzaga to win the 2021 title, in the East.
Gonzaga and Arizona, whose first-year coach Tommy Lloyd was a longtime Gonzaga assistant, along with UCLA, seeded fourth in the East, which returns every notable player from last year’s Final Four team, give the West Coast one of its best chances in recent years to win a national championship for the first time since Arizona’s stunning run to the title in the 1996-97 season.
Still, there is hardly a prohibitive favorite in what looks to be a wide-open chase to reach the Final Four in New Orleans.
Consider that one of Gonzaga’s three losses was to Alabama, which might serve as an appropriate poster child for a season in which seemingly anything could happen. Some of the turbulence was surely linked to the pandemic. Early, games were regularly canceled or postponed because of coronavirus outbreaks when the omicron variant surfaced in late November. That meant pauses and restarts and condensed schedules, which disrupted practice habits and continuity for many teams and added levels of fatigue.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to make sense of Alabama, which beat Gonzaga, Baylor and Southeastern Conference Tournament champion Tennessee, and yet gave Georgia its only conference victory, lost to Iona and was knocked out of the SEC Tournament by Vanderbilt.
Another difficult consideration for the committee was Rutgers, which won 12 games in the Big Ten, the deepest conference in the nation, and yet lost to Massachusetts and Lafayette and needed overtime to squeak past Lehigh.
It is fitting perhaps that Alabama, seeded sixth in the West, could play Rutgers if the Scarlet Knights survive a play-in game against Notre Dame.
Teams on the precarious bubble were not helped when Virginia Tech, which lost in overtime to Florida in last year’s NCAA Tournament, earned another shot by completing an unlikely four-day jaunt through the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament by thumping Duke on Saturday night. That run started haltingly enough: with Darius Maddox hitting a 3-pointer at the overtime buzzer to outlast Clemson.
The bubble got even more crowded Sunday when Richmond, which rallied from 15 points down to beat Rhode Island and Dayton, crawled out of a 5-point hole with just over a minute left to beat top-seeded Davidson on Sunday afternoon for the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament title.
Ultimately, Richmond’s win sank the hopes of another A-10 team, Dayton, which the selection committee chairman Tom Burnett said was that first team left out. Others that were left just outside the field included Oklahoma, Southern Methodist, Texas A&M and Xavier.
The Big Ten, which flopped in last year’s tournament, landed nine teams in the field — including Michigan, which had the worst record among at-large teams (17-14), and Indiana, which like Rutgers must survive a play-in game, against Wyoming.
Richmond earning a spot ensures that players such as Jacob Gilyard, the Spiders’ dynamo of a point guard, will get to shine in front of a broader audience. This year’s tournament also offers another moment at center stage for Collin Gillespie, Villanova’s determined point guard and a Big East player of the year in back-to-back seasons.
Nobody, though, will have more eyes on him in this tournament than Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach who is retiring after 42 seasons with the Blue Devils. A year ago, Krzyzewski questioned whether the season should even be proceeding during the pandemic — and it ended with the Blue Devils bowing out of the ACC Tournament when their team was hit with coronavirus cases.
Duke opens the tournament close to home against Cal State Fullerton, as the No. 2 seed in the West.
He later announced that this season would be his last, ensuring that whether he wins his sixth national championship — he has more than any men’s coach except John Wooden — or shuffles off the court after a loss, he won’t be doing so without any pomp and circumstance.