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March Madness brings back pre-pandemic energy
Any hoops fan hungering for a return to normal this March might have looked at the bracket when it finally came out and wondered what ever changed.
Gonzaga is the tournament's top seed. Kansas and Arizona are No. 1s, as well. Duke and Kentucky are right up there as No. 2s and the defending champion, Baylor, is the other top seed and a force to be reckoned with again, too.
But all that sameness felt like more of a celebration when the pairings were set this Selection Sunday. The most-anticipated reveal of the year felt like a party again, even if it might have been pushed down a notch on the ticker by the unexpected return of Tom Brady to the NFL in an announcement that came just as Dick Vitale and Co., were starting to break down the 68-team draw.
"This was a really special year because we all realized what we missed," Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
For the first time since 2019, the teams will scatter across the country to eight cities for 48 games over the first four-day weekend of America's unofficial hoops holiday. Then, they will move to four cities for the Sweet 16. And they will cut down the nets in New Orleans, where the Final Four runs April 2-4.
It figures to be a much different atmosphere than in Indianapolis last year, where all 67 games were held in a makeshift bubble with limited fans. A year after COVID-19 scrubbed the event completely, 2021 offered a tournament that put the NCAA under the glare of the spotlight for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the inequities between the men's and women's events.
This year, the women's tournament is being branded as "March Madness," just like the men's. That bracket was revealed on Sunday, just like the men's. The No. 1 seeds in that one: South Carolina, Louisville, North Carolina State and Stanford.
As always, there was a decent-sized menu of snubs and oversights to debate. On the men's side, Xavier didn't make it despite four wins against teams that qualified for the 68-team field. Texas A&M made the final of the SEC Tournament but got snubbed, too. Among those making the cut were Michigan, despite 14 losses, and Indiana and Rutgers, which had 13 each.
The Big Ten got its fair share of love, with a nation-high nine teams, which made it surprising to some that the conference's tournament champion, Iowa, was stuck with a 5 seed.
Leading the Hawkeyes this year is Keegan Murray, a 23-point-per-game scorer who is one of the best inside-outside threats in the game.
Kansas guard Ochai Agbaji is something rare in college — a senior, and one who averages around 20 points and five rebounds a game and also plays great defense. He withdrew from the NBA draft last season and has led the Jayhawks to their first No. 1 seed since 2018.
Also, Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe, one of dozens who switched schools via the amped-up transfer portal that is displaying a penchant for reshaping college hoops — and college sports — in the blink of an eye.
"It's all about staying in the moment and having more fun than anybody in the tournament," said Tshiebwe's coach, John Calipari.
The best way to have fun, of course, is winning it all. Baylor did that last year in a title-game romp over Gonzaga. Just like last year, both are No. 1 seeds again, with the Zags the 3-1 favorite to win the title, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Arizona was next at 6-1, followed by Kentucky (17-2) and Baylor (10-1).
"A great learning experience," Gonzaga's Drew Timme said on ESPN of last year's second-place finish. "Obviously, things didn't go the way we wanted. But it allowed for a lot of self-growth for the program. We're excited for the challenge."
So many storylines in this tournament will revolve around Duke's Mike Krzyzewski. The 75-year-old coach is calling it quits after this season, his 42nd with the Blue Devils. He needs four wins to reach his 13th Final Four, but the road is not easy.
It could include a matchup with Tom Izzo and Michigan State in the second round, then a trip to San Francisco for a possible matchup with Gonzaga in the Elite Eight.
"It's the last time I'm going to be able to do this," Krzyzewski tweeted after the brackets came out, "and to be a No. 2 seed is terrific."