Welcome to selection Sunday.
For many, today is a national holiday. The weeks of debate, the hours poring over RPI numbers, the late nights watching obscure West Coast teams, it all culminates a little after 6 p.m. when that 68-team NCAA tournament bracket is finally unveiled.
The tournament selection committee remains holed up in a downtown Indianapolis hotel, where it is attempting to select the best 37 at-large teams to join 31 automatic qualifiers. The committee typically spends Sunday mornings repeatedly voting to select the remaining at-large teams and planning for contingencies if a variety of wacky results occur in today's conference tournament games.
Committee chair Mike Bobinski has said that, ideally, the committee would like to begin seeding teams a little after noon so the bracket can be finished a fair amount of time before the start of CBS' 6 p.m. selection show. One year, he said, the committee had its own buzzer-beater, finishing the bracket some 15 minutes before the show was to start.
Given the unprecedented parity across the nation, Bobinski said seeding teams in the middle of the field could present the committee with its greatest challenge this particular season because the separation among those teams is so slight. And, as always, selecting the final at-large teams produces the most tense moments, because it determines whether a team will compete or not, and such decisions could affect coaches' job security.
When the bracket is revealed, it will undoubtedly prompt some second-guessing among fans, as well as nationwide fretting over all-important issues like which 12 seed to pick to win in the first round. It will lead to celebration or disappointment in college towns such as Murfreesboro, Tenn., College Park, Md., and Oxford, Miss., among others.
And it will answer these 10 most intriguing bracket-related questions:
1. In addition to Louisville and Indiana, who else will earn top seeds?
The picture is cloudier than normal this season. Other prime contenders all have unique, somewhat flawed résumés. Two of these three teams - Duke, Kansas, Gonzaga - will likely earn the other two No. 1 seeds.
Duke is still likely to earn a No. 1 seed despite losing to Maryland for the second time, and for the first time with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. The committee emphasizes a team's entire body of work, and that would include the nation's most impressive non-league schedule. The Blue Devils beat five top-50 RPI teams all before Dec. 9. The four losses Duke suffered during 13 games without Kelly will still be considered, but are likely to be given less weight.
The issue with Gonzaga is its strength of schedule ranking (74th), which would be one of the worst for a No. 1 seed in the past 13 years. On the other hand, the Bulldogs have lost just twice (Illinois, Butler) and could very well earn a top seed much like St. Joe's did out of a non-power conference in 2004.
The committee does not like to put too much weight on any one result. Kansas hopes the committee follows that mantra when it comes to its loss to TCU, which rates 236th in the RPI. Other than that, the Jayhawks have a profile befitting a top seed, including six victories over top 25 RPI teams.
Don't be surprised if any of the aforementioned teams earn top seeds.
2. Will Kentucky earn one of the final at-large berths?
It would not be the worst at-large selection in history, but it would be extremely surprising if the Wildcats make the field. Coach John Calipari told USA TODAY Sports last week that he trusts the judgment of the committee and that the Wildcats needed to take care of business in the SEC tournament. Then they went out Saturday and suffered their second-worst loss of the season RPI-wise against Vanderbilt.
The odd thing about the Wildcats is that they actually accomplished more on paper without standout center Nerlens Noel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Feb. 12 at Florida. Their only two top-50 RPI wins - Missouri, Florida - came after losing Noel. Problem is, so did a deflating loss at Georgia and a 30-point loss at Tennessee. Big Blue Nation should set its sights on the NIT.
3. How will the nation's best conference, the Big Ten, be rewarded?
The committee does not make any decisions on seeding or berths on a conference-by-conference basis. One team's résumé is compared with résumés of teams from a variety of leagues. That said, the Big Ten has been the nation's strongest league by a considerable margin, and that will be reflected in the seeding of the seven teams expected to make the field.
Five teams from the league - Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin - could very well earn top-four seeds in the tournament. Each is a legitimate Final Four contender. And the other two teams - Illinois and Minnesota - both have realistic hopes of earning single-digit seeds.
4. Which team will earn the top overall seed, and where will it play?
The debate is between Indiana and Louisville, but the Cardinals made a strong statement Saturday night by demolishing Syracuse in the second half of the Big East championship. They are the favorite to earn the top overall seed.
This team is surging. It ranks in the top five in RPI and strength of schedule. And it has beaten six consecutivet opponents that rank in the top 52 of the RPI. What's more, it has lost just one game by more than five points.
The Cardinals are expected to open the NCAA tournament in Lexington, Ky. If they reach the Sweet 16, it would make the most sense geographically to place them in Indianapolis, a site that up until yesterday seemed destined to host Indiana.
5. Will a power conference team play in the First Four in Dayton?
For a few weeks, the intriguing possibility of having blue-blood Kentucky play in the First Four remained realistic, even likely. Wherever, whenever and whoever Kentucky plays, people watch. And it would have been interesting to see all eyes on Dayton to watch those erratic 'Cats.
That's unlikely to happen. The best bet now among power conference teams is for Mississippi, Virginia or Tennessee to wind up in Dayton. Seeing Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson's histrionics in the First Four would be must-see TruTV. But if the Rebels win the SEC tournament final Sunday, they would earn the automatic berth and be out of the First Four.
Boise State, St. Mary's, Middle Tennessee and La Salle are some other possibilities to wind up in the First Four.
6. Will any team have a legitimate gripe if they don't make the tournament?
Nope. Not even close. We don't want to hear from Virginia if the Cavaliers don't make it, not after playing a lightweight schedule and losing to three CAA teams. We don't want to hear from Maryland, which struggled on the road late in the season against some of the weaker ACC teams.
And we certainly don't want to hear from Ole Miss if the Rebels fail to squeeze into the field. Not only do they have a strength of schedule that ranks 127th nationally, but they suffered two losses in the past month against teams that rank worse than 220 in the RPI, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Those are abominable performances.
7. Does Middle Tennessee State from the Sun Belt earn an at-large bid?
Middle Tennessee could very well earn one of the final at-large berths and wind up in the First Four in Dayton. The at-large picture has continued to evolve since they were abruptly eliminated from the Sun Belt tournament. And developments have favored Middle Tennessee.
Enough teams across the nation have stumbled, boosting the hopes of Middle Tennessee. They rank 31st in the RPI and have 28 division I victories. What's more, they also own a head-to-head victory over another bubble team, Mississippi. Don't be surprised if that offsets the fact they have two sub-100 RPI losses and no top-50 wins. Playing the Sun Belt's lackluster schedule was no fault of their own. Unlike some teams, MTSU tried to play teams of consequence in non-conference play.
8. Will the Mountain West, the nation's top-ranked league in the RPI, be well represented in the tournament?
Absolutely. As many as five teams will get berths if Boise State earns one of the final bids. The league has been outstanding. New Mexico is likely a No. 3 seed, though it has an outside chance at a No. 2 seed.
UNLV appears poised for a No. 6 seed, give or take one seed line. Colorado State and San Diego State could wind up in 8/9 games. The success of the MWC this season is the result of shrewd non-league schedule and simply having good teams in a deep league. The RPI is not the end-all, it is just one tool the committee uses to assess teams. But MWC fans should be pleased after a exemplary season.
San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said by phone Saturday night that as many as three teams from the MWC have legitimate chances to reach the Final Four.
9. Which first-round site will produce the most chaos?
Look at where the most No. 3, 4 and 5 seeds will be competing. So keep your eye on games slated for San Jose and Austin. If teams like Belmont, South Dakota State, Davidson or Bucknell wind up in these sites as No. 12 or No. 13 seeds, watch out. You could have several upsets on your hands, or at least dramatic games. And, frankly, if those teams win a game, it should not be considered a major upset at all.
Sites such as Philadelphia and Dayton are expected to be stockpiled with top seeds, which means they could be all chalk. Or, if this season has been any indication, they could produce the most inexplicable results.
10. Is there a national title favorite?
Did you watch the season? The playing field has been leveled coast to coast. Virtually any result in the first round is possible, though it remains unlikely that a No. 16 will beat a No. 1 seed for the first time. All of the high seeds are vulnerable. Many of the double-digit seeds are capable of winning at least a couple games.
In the past three seasons, teams from outside power conferences - Butler (2010, 2011), VCU (2011) - have made three appearances in the Final Four. Teams such as Gonzaga, New Mexico, Saint Louis and Memphis could each reach the Final Four, and it would surprise few.
Consider Louisville, which has lost just one game since Jan. 26, and that was a five-overtime classic against Notre Dame. The Cardinals just obliterated Syracuse in the final 15 minutes of the Big East tournament. But when asked about his confidence level heading into the NCAA tournament, coach Rick Pitino made a statement that encapsulated the season.
"Duke and Missouri went on great runs last season, both lost in the first round," he said. "I am not overly confident about anything."