Louisville is the top seed in the NCAA tournament after a topsy-turvy season in college basketball, capped by another round of upsets over the weekend.
That other team from the Bluegrass State won’t even get a chance to defend its national title.
While the Big East champion Cardinals surged to the top of the 68-team bracket released Sunday, joined by fellow No. 1 seeds Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga, the team that won it all a year ago was left out of the field. Kentucky was hoping the committee would overlook a dismal performance in the Southeastern Conference tournament, but the Wildcats will have to settle for a spot in the National Invitation Tournament.
As if that’s not bad enough for Kentucky fans, Louisville (29-5) gets to rub a little more salt in its rival’s wounds by opening the tournament about 75 miles from home on Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena. The Cardinals will face Liberty or North Carolina A&T in a second-round game Thursday.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga (30-2) moving to the lead spot for the first time in school history.
Committee chairman Mike Bobinski said last week he thought as many as seven teams could be in the running for No. 1 seeds.
Of course, only four spots were available. The top one went to No. 4 Louisville, which stumbled through a three-game losing streak in January after rising to No. 1 and came up short in an epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame a few weeks later.
The Cardinals haven’t lost since, ripping off 10 straight wins capped by a stunning turnaround in the championship game of the Big East tournament. They trailed Syracuse by 16 points early in the second half but turned up the full-court pressure and won 78-61 in a romp.
No. 7 Kansas (29-5) moved up to take the second overall seed after an impressive run through the Big 12 tournament, capped by a 70-54 victory over rival Kansas State. No. 3 Indiana (28-6) is third despite falling to Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinals. The Zags claimed the last of the coveted No. 1 seeds, edging out ACC champion Miami.
The top spots are significant in at least one respect: A No. 1 has never lost to a No. 16 team.
Miami is the first ACC team to be denied a top seed after winning both the regular-season and the conference tournament in the ACC. The Hurricanes were among the No. 2 seeds with conference rival Duke, Georgetown from the Big East and Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State.
“Miami had a tremendous year. They are a great basketball team,” Bobinski said. “If we had five spots, Miami would be there with us.”
The Big East, in its final year before the basketball-only schools break away to form their own league, led the way with eight teams in the NCAA field. The Big Ten was next with seven.
But the less-glamorous leagues also did well. Middle Tennessee was the last of the at-large teams to make the field, beating out power-conference teams Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama and Virginia — not to mention Kentucky.
Middle Tennessee lost in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament after winning the regular-season title. Still, the Blue Raiders (28-5) are headed to the tournament, helped along when Ole Miss knocked off Florida in the SEC championship game Sunday. Middle Tennessee beat the Rebels in nonconference play.
“They had no rough patches along the way,” Bobinski said, “and their win over Ole Miss looks better at this point in time.”