NEW YORK – From the top seed in the NCAA Tournament — Virginia — to those that barely made it into the bracket — Arizona State and Syracuse — it feels as though everyone involved in March Madness is on the bubble this year.
College basketball is in trouble.
The brackets came out Sunday, replete with the usual fanfare that accompanies America’s biggest office pool. Villanova, Kansas and Xavier joined Virginia as No. 1 seeds, but they, along with the other 64 contenders, will play against the backdrop of an investigation-riddled season in which bribes and payoffs made bigger headlines than 3s and layups.
The tournament begins Tuesday with opening-round games featuring a matchup of bubble teams UCLA and St. Bonaventure, then kicks into full swing Thursday and Friday at eight sites around the country.
The Final Four is March 31 and April 2 in San Antonio. Shortly after that, a commission led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to deliver recommendations from an investigation triggered by an FBI probe that led to charges last fall against assistant coaches, agents, employees of apparel companies and others.
For now, though, hoops — and there was plenty to discuss after the Big Reveal.
The ACC led the way with nine teams in the tournament, matching a record the ever-expanding conference set last year. The SEC sent eight teams and the Big 12 sent seven. The Big Ten only sent four and the Pac-12 only had three in down years for both marquee conferences.
The Cavaliers headline the South Region bracket, earning a No. 1 seed for the sixth time in program history. It’s the third 1 seed in the past five seasons under coach Tony Bennett, who guided his team to a regional final two years ago but has yet to take the next step: the Final Four.
The pressure will be higher than ever for the Cavaliers (31-2) to do it now.
“I wouldn’t say pressure is the word,” leading scorer Kyle Guy said after Saturday night’s win against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game. “But you know, that’s definitely in the back of our minds. We’re just trying to do this for each other.”
The region to watch is the Midwest, which is top-heavy with Kansas, Duke and Michigan State, who were ranked in the top 4 in the AP preseason poll.
Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team has lost in regional finals the last two years, said the Jayhawks’ path sets up well if they can beat Penn and then No. 8 Seton Hall or No. 9 North Carolina State. Wichita is a 2½-hour drive from their campus in Lawrence, and Omaha is three hours to the north. They played first- and second-round games in Omaha in 2008, 2012 and 2015.
“The advantage is your fans get an opportunity to come see you play,” Self said. “We have never been to Wichita and look forward to doing that. (If) we’re fortunate to win two games, Omaha is kind of a home away from home during the NCAA Tournament.”
Xavier earned its first NCAA Tournament No. 1 seeding despite losing in the Big East Tournament semifinals.
“The tournament is so unique,” coach Chris Mack said Sunday. “We’ve got to play our best if we want to advance and I think we’re right on the verge of that. I think our defense grew up the last three weeks of the season. Experience helps, but being ready to play that night is the most important thing.”
For Villanova, the goal is to survive the opening weekend.
The 2016 champs were the overall top seed last year and lost to Wisconsin. Villanova lost opening weekend as a No. 1 seed in 2015, and as a No. 2 seed in 2014 and 2010. They failed to get out of the first weekend in 2011 and 2013. Villanova has advanced out of the opening weekend only twice in the last 10 seasons — when it reached the Final Four in 2009 and when Kris Jenkins hit a 3 at the horn to win it all in ’16.
“I think it’s been different each year,” Wright said. “I don’t see one consistent issue. I looked at each one of them independently. I did try and find some consistencies. The only thing that was consistent was tough matchups.”