Louisville is the top seed in the NCAA tournament after a topsy-turvy season in college basketball, capped by another round of upsets over the weekend.
That other team from the Bluegrass State won’t even get a chance to defend its national title.
While the Big East champion Cardinals surged to the top of the 68-team bracket released Sunday, joined by fellow No. 1 seeds Kansas, Indiana and Gonzaga, the school that won it all a year ago was left out of the field. Kentucky was hoping the committee would overlook a dismal performance in the Southeastern Conference tournament, but the Wildcats had to settle for a spot in the second-tier National Invitation Tournament.
“You’ve got to earn it each and every year," said Mike Bobinski, the Xavier athletic director who chaired the selection committee.
As if that’s not bad enough for Kentucky fans, Louisville (29-5) gets to rub a little more salt in its rival’s wounds by opening the tournament about 75 miles from campus on Kentucky’s home court, Rupp Arena in Lexington. The Cardinals will face either Liberty or North Carolina A&T in a second-round game Thursday.
Kentucky plays an NIT game Tuesday — on the road because Rupp is taken for the NCAAs — at Robert Morris.
The selection committee had its work cut out after five teams swapped the top ranking in The Associated Press poll, capped by West Coast Conference champion Gonzaga (30-2) moving to the lead spot for the first time in school history. Bobinski said six teams were in the running for No. 1 seeds on the final weekend, the result of a season in which no school established itself as a favorite.
Of course, only four spots were available at the head of each bracket. The top one went to fourth-ranked Louisville, which stumbled through a three-game losing streak in January after rising to No. 1 in the poll, and came up short in an epic five-overtime loss at Notre Dame a few weeks later.
The Cardinals have ripped off 10 straight wins since, capped by a stunning turnaround in the championship game of the Big East tournament. They trailed Syracuse by 16 points early in the second half, but put on the full-court pressure and won in a romp, 78-61.
The Big East, in its final year before the basketball-only schools break away to form their own league, led the way with eight teams in the field.
“We are ecstatic to be the No. 1 seed, particularly after finishing off one of the greatest conferences in the history of college basketball with a Big East championship," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We know we will be challenged right away in one of the toughest brackets that I’ve seen in quite some time. I think our guys are up for the challenge."
While the Big East had the most teams, followed by the Big Ten with seven, the less-glamorous leagues also did well. Middle Tennessee, for instance, was the last of the at-large teams to make the field, along with La Salle, Boise State and Saint Mary’s, beating out more recognized programs such as Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama and Virginia.
In all, 11 of the 37 at-large bids went to teams outside the so-called power conferences.