The quadrant of death appeared to be the South, with North Carolina, Kentucky and, at No. 3, U.C.L.A. (29-4) all seen as title contenders. The Bruins beat Kentucky on the Wildcats’ home court in December, and they could face them again in the round of 16. Or No. 6 Cincinnati (29-5), ranked No. 15 in the most recent Associated Press poll, could knock off U.C.L.A. in the second round. Or Kentucky could fall as early as the second round, to No. 7 Dayton (24-7), a highly respected program out of the Atlantic 10, or to No. 10 Wichita State (30-4), which won the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Shockers in particular are widely regarded as better than any other automatic qualifier out of a midmajor conference; according to the respected predictive rankings at KenPom.com, they are the country’s eighth-best team.
The Bruins, meanwhile, have college basketball’s highest-scoring offense, led by the dynamic freshman Lonzo Ball at the point. They hope to return to the Final Four after a decade-long absence and to give the Pacific-12 Conference its first title since Arizona, of what was then the Pac-10, won it all in 1997.
Kansas will have the relative luxury of traveling a few hours down the highway to Tulsa, Okla., to start the tournament and, if it advances, all but commuting to Kansas City, Mo., during the second weekend. But in the round of 16, the Jayhawks — who, after a strong regular season, were upset in the Big 12 tournament’s first round by Texas Christian — could face No. 5 Iowa State (23-10), which won the Big 12 tournament, and whose fans are known for flooding Kansas City’s Sprint Center for that event. Or they could face No. 4 Purdue (25-7), the highest-seeded Big Ten team. Waiting in the round of 8 could be Louisville or No. 3 Oregon (29-5).
Villanova could face Wisconsin (25-9), an experienced team that is arguably underseeded at No. 8, in the second round. Hard-core basketball fans might pine for the East Region to go according to form, setting up Villanova vs. Duke in the round of 8 at Madison Square Garden. Duke sustained a number of injuries this season — not least to Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who missed seven games recovering from back surgery — but last week, returned mostly to full health, the Blue Devils stampeded through the A.C.C. tournament, knocking off Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame.
Besides Villanova, the serious contender with the most compelling story line is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs play in a 6,000-seat arena in eastern Washington, but the days are long gone when anyone could mistake them for a fairy-tale story. This is the Bulldogs’ 19th consecutive tournament appearance, and in that span they have routinely made deep runs and produced N.B.A. first-round draft picks.
What they have failed to do in any of their previous trips, though, is reach a Final Four. This year their road could go through Bob Huggins’s fierce West Virginia (26-8) in the round of 16, and potentially Arizona — which Gonzaga already has defeated this season, by 69-62, in December — or perhaps even their conference rival St. Mary’s (28-4), a No. 7 seed against whom Gonzaga was 3-0 this season.
The A.C.C. became the only conference other than the previous, larger incarnation of the Big East to send more than seven teams to the tournament. It has nine entries — fewer than the 11 or 12 some had dreamed of only a few weeks ago. The new Big East will send seven of its 10 members, the highest proportion of any league.
The so-called last four in — the final at-large teams the committee included — were Kansas State (20-13), Wake Forest (19-13), Providence (20-12) and Southern California (24-9). The first four out — the teams ranked highest by the committee that still missed the cut and are set to receive No. 1 seeds in the N.I.T. — were California (21-12), Illinois State (27-6), Iowa (18-14) and Syracuse (18-14). All except Illinois State are members of power conferences.
Kansas has now broken the record for consecutive N.C.A.A. tournament appearances, with 28, passing the mark set from 1975 to 2001 by North Carolina (whose coach for most of that run was Dean Smith, who played for … Kansas). Kentucky, the college program with the most wins, continues to hold the lead with 56 total appearances.
First-timers this year included the automatic qualifiers Jacksonville State, Northern Kentucky, North Dakota, U.C. Davis, and Northwestern (23-11), which had been one of just five teams that had been in Division I since the tournament began in 1939 yet had never earned a berth. The Wildcats will face Vanderbilt (19-15) in the first round.
Basketball fans only now tuning in to the college sport might find a more welcoming game, particularly if they are used to the fast-paced, talent-heavy N.B.A. The decision before last season to shorten the shot clock to 30 seconds from 35 and to change several other rules to free up offenses has resulted in faster and higher-scoring games. Teams average nearly 6 more points a game than they did two years ago and nearly five more possessions, according to N.C.A.A. figures. As in the pros, they are also taking, and making, more 3-pointers.
This year’s selection show on CBS, which broadcasts the tournament along with Turner stations, went off without a hitch, at least compared with last year’s, during which an anonymous leaker posted the full bracket on Twitter after only half had formally been unveiled.
However, CBS’s producers may have been unable to spare themselves from some inadvertent foreshadowing. In the opening shot of the studio, before a single team was named, banners of various teams could be seen lining the set above the announcers’ desk. The four banners at the center of the tableau belonged to Villanova, Gonzaga, Kansas and U.N.C. — the four No. 1s.
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