We have an NCAA favorite

ASSOCIATED PRESS Louisville's Montrezl Harrell reacts during his team's second-half run at Syracuse in the Big East Tournament title game at Madison Square Garden.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Louisville's Montrezl Harrell reacts during his team's second-half run at Syracuse in the Big East Tournament title game at Madison Square Garden.
Posted: March 19, 2013

YOU COULD SEE it coming for weeks, but it took until around 2 hours before midnight on Saturday for it to become obvious that there is a favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. It was 7 minutes on the court at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament championship game that crystallized it for anybody who understands the game. Louisville outscored Syracuse, 29-4, while playing the game about as well it can be played. The Cardinals started their wave trailing 45-29 and ended it ahead 58-49 on the way to the final Big East championship as we knew it.

Louisville blitzed Syracuse with three bench players on the floor for the majority of the time. Leading scorer Russ Smith watched most of it from the bench. It was just one moment in one game, but it was a microcosm of how the Cardinals have been playing since that three-game losing streak in January. They won their three Big East games by a combined 48 points while getting 34 steals and attacking teams on every part of the court. They are not the favorite Kentucky was in 2012, but they are the favorite as the extravaganza gets under way with the First Four on Tuesday and Wednesday in Dayton.

When the 68-team field was announced, the committee agreed that Louisville was the favorite, making it the overall No. 1 seed, taking the Midwest/Indianapolis region away from Big Ten regular-season champion Indiana. The Hoosiers fell to No. 3 overall seed behind Kansas and ahead of Gonzaga on the top line.

Three Philadelphia teams made it and eight other teams will be coming to the Wells Fargo Center this weekend for four second-round games Friday and two third-round games on Sunday. Villanova is a No. 9 seed in the South and will play No. 8 North Carolina on Friday in Kansas City. Temple is a No. 9 seed in the East and will play No. 8 North Carolina State on Friday in Dayton. La Salle, a No. 13 seed in the South, was the second-to-last at-large team invited and will play Boise State in a First Four game Wednesday, also in Dayton. If the Explorers win, they will be with Villanova in Kansas City on the weekend.

The committee released the entire seed list, 1 through 68. Temple was rated 34th, Villanova 38th and La Salle 49th. Only Middle Tennessee (50th) was lower than La Salle among the at-large teams.

Duke and Georgetown are the anchor teams for the Wells Fargo Center games Friday and Sunday. Each is a No. 2 seed. Duke gets America East champion Albany. Georgetown gets Atlantic Sun winner Florida Gulf Coast. Assuming there are no massive upsets, Duke will get the Creighton-Cincinnati winner on Sunday while Georgetown will get the San Diego State-Oklahoma winner.

Players to watch beyond the stars for Duke and Georgetown will be Creighton's multitalented Doug McDermott and San Diego State's attacking guard Jamaal Franklin.

Louisville might have gotten site preference, but it did not get any other breaks. Even though the Cardinals were the overall No. 1, Duke, rated sixth overall (or the second No. 2 behind Miami), is in Louisville's region.

If the Cardinals get through their first two games down the road in Lexington, they could get a very difficult Sweet 16 matchup with Atlantic 10 champion Saint Louis, a team that does not get rattled by anything. The Billikens' guards can contend with the pressure and attack it intelligently. Saint Louis is so good that it crushed very talented New Mexico on New Year's Eve and frustrated Steve Alford enough that the coach got ejected for the first time in his career.

If the seeds hold, Duke or Michigan State could be waiting for Louisville in the regional final. That would be no picnic.

If Louisville gets through to Atlanta, it will have earned it, even if its games are an hour and then 2 hours from campus.

There are bracketing principles the committee uses, mainly trying to keep teams closer to home and top three teams from conferences away from each other that preclude a straight bracket where the top No. 1 seed is in the same region as the fourth No. 2 seed.

That really helped Gonzaga. The Bulldogs were the fourth No. 1, but Ohio State, also in the West Region, is the fourth No. 2. The West looks like, by far, the weakest region. None of the "experts" seem to like Gonzaga. Perhaps they just have not stayed up to watch Mark Few's team. They are surely good enough to make it to Atlanta.

Indiana looked like a lock for Indianapolis for weeks as the best team in America's best conference. Then, the Hoosiers lost in the Big Ten semifinals to Wisconsin, a team they can't beat. And Louisville looked so impressive in New York.

The seeding principles really helped Kansas and Kansas State, which will play on the same Kansas City floor where they met in Saturday's Big 12 championship game. They also helped Michigan State and Michigan, which will open play in the Palace of Auburn Hills.

Miami became the first ACC regular-season and tournament champion not to get a No. 1 seed. The Hurricanes were fifth overall on the seed list.

The final four at-large spots went to teams from nonpower conferences - Boise State, Saint Mary's, La Salle and Middle Tennessee, all teams that had success in their conferences and tried to schedule up in the nonconference. They left out power conference teams with big wins in their conference, such as Maryland and Virginia, but either fared badly in the nonconference or did not try to schedule decent teams.

That message has been sent loudly for years and this committee could not have been more emphatic this year. Middle Tennessee was the ultimate test case. It dominated the Sun Belt, but lost in the conference semifinals to a team that did not go on to win the championship. It finished 28-5. It played at Florida, Akron and Belmont.

And Middle Tennessee got lucky. Its best win was over Mississippi. When Ole Miss went on a run this weekend to win the SEC title, that win started to look even better. And Middle Tennessee got in, probably over neighbor Tennessee, almost certainly one of the last teams left out of the field. The Vols played really well down the stretch, winning 9 of 11. But the committee still took a Sun Belt team over teams from the ACC and SEC.

So, it is not necessarily about who you beat, but who did you get a chance to beat. That is why Middle Tennessee and La Salle are in this field instead of Virginia and Tennessee.

Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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