After Grueling Big East Run, UConn Gets No. 3 Seed
Kemba Walker and his Connecticut teammates won’t get much time to catch their breath before traveling to Washington, D.C., for their first NCAA tournament game against Bucknell.
The Huskies (26-9), a No. 3 seed, will play the Patriot League-champion Bison (24-8) on Thursday in the West Regional. Both of UConn’s national championship teams and all three of its Final Four squads were placed in the West.
UConn enters the NCAAs fresh off one of the most incredible and grueling runs through a tournament in college basketball history.
The Huskies won their seventh Big East title Saturday night by winning five games in five days, four against ranked opponents — No. 22 Georgetown, No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 11 Syracuse and No. 14 Louisville.
But coach Jim Calhoun said he doesn’t think fatigue will be a factor going into the NCAA tournament. After a good night of rest Sunday, the Huskies should be ready to go, he said.
“They’re kids,” he said. “We’re not going to shorten practice. We’re going to go like we always would, preparing for an NCAA tournament.”
The Huskies, who won the Maui Invitational at the beginning of their season and the Big East tournament to finish it, had a lot of ups and downs in between.
They had a six-game winning streak in January that included victories over Texas, Villanova and Tennessee.
They also lost four of their last five regular-season games, and were projected as a midlevel seed before the Big East tournament.
“We were a good team in the league,” Calhoun said. “But to be a No. 3 seed, obviously our work this past week really paid off.”
Calhoun cautioned his players about being overconfident against Bucknell, a team he acknowledged he knew little about. Walker said Connecticut’s freshmen will need to play well again if the Huskies hope to advance to the regional in Anaheim, Calif., and beyond.
But sophomore center Alex Oriakhi said he believes the key will again be Walker, who averaged 26 points and more than six rebounds, four assists and three steals during the Big East tournament.
“Kemba is UConn basketball,” Oriakhi said. “He’s put this team on his back throughout the whole year, and we’re just trying to help him out.”
RILED UP: As soon as he arrived home from the Southeastern Conference tournament, Kentucky coach John Calipari voiced his displeasure with the NCAA selection committee.
“They did it to us again,” he quipped as he walked into his residence with his team, assistant coaches and University of Kentucky President Dr. Lee Todd.
The Wildcats, fresh off a 70-54 victory over Florida to capture their second consecutive SEC tournament title on Sunday in Atlanta, were selected as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament’s East Regional.
They will take on 13th-seeded Princeton on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.
Florida, beaten twice by Kentucky in 10 days, received a No. 2 seed in the Southeast Regional. The Wildcats are one of five SEC teams in the tournament.
Calipari said he thought before the SEC championship game that both Kentucky and Florida likely would get No. 3 seeds, or the loser of the SEC title game would become a No. 4 seed.
“I’m a little bit surprised,” Calipari said. “It was a tough road for us (and) it was a tough road last year. I don’t think it’s personal, but wow. This team has really worked hard all year and I think our RPI is seven. You’re a seven and it gets you a four? But at the end of the day you’re in the tournament and you still have to win games.”
Senior Josh Harrellson said he was disappointed by the No. 4 seed.
“We thought we should have been a 3 seed and a lot of people probably aren’t happy with where we are right now, but we can’t really complain,” he said. “We’ve just got to come out, compete and play basketball. I don’t think seeds matter, it’s the NCAA tournament.”
TONGUE TIED: Chris Mack didn’t even wait for the end of the NCAA tournament selection show to try — again — to fix a long-standing misconception.
The coach tweeted broadcaster Kenny Smith: “Hey … Xavier is pronounced like you say the word Xylophone.”
The Musketeers (24-7) got the seed they expected — a No. 6 — along with an opening game against Marquette on Friday in Cleveland. They also got a reminder that not everyone pays much attention to them.
During the selection show on Sunday evening, Smith not only mispronounced the school’s name but called leading scorer Tu Holloway “Tu Holliday,” a slip that made the point guard laugh.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “As long as they get ‘Tu’ right. As long as they’re not saying ‘Three Holliday’ or something like that, I’m all right.”
Xavier will have plenty of chances in March to set it straight.
The five-time Atlantic 10 regular-season champions reached the NCAA tournament for the 10th time in the last 11 years. Xavier and Michigan State are the only schools to reach the round of 16 in each of the last three tournaments, something that might be expected to help with the name recognition.
“As long as they’re still staying our name, they can say it how they want to. But c’mon, Kenny the Jet,” Mack said, using Smith’s nickname. “That’s like me saying he played at South Carolina. If I said that, he’d be upset. We’ve got (Roy) Halladay on our roster, a pitcher from the Phillies. What’s going on here?”
DON’T I KNOW YOU? Josh Pastner’s first game as a head coach in the NCAA tournament will be against his alma mater, Arizona.
Memphis (25-9), seeded 12th in the West Regional, will face the fifth-seeded Wildcats (27-7) on Friday in Tulsa, Okla. Pastner didn’t get much time on the court during his playing days at Arizona from 1996-2000 but earned his scholarship as more of a coaching apprentice.
Pastner worked on Lute Olson’s staff from the time he gradated until 2008, when he left to become an assistant at Memphis.
Freshman Will Barton, the leading scorer for the Conference USA-champion Tigers, called it crazy.
“I told Coach on the way into the house, ‘You know, I think we’re going to get matched up against Arizona the first game.’ We kind of laughed it off. But as soon as I saw Arizona pop up as a 5 seed, I said, ‘They’re calling Memphis (next),’ and that’s what happened,” Barton said.
Pastner isn’t the only coach who could be feeling nostalgic soon. UNLV’s Lon Kruger will face his former team, Illinois, in the second round. Steve Fisher and San Diego State could end up playing Michigan in the West Regional final.
Pastner averaged 0.9 points as an Arizona player. He laughingly boasts that the Wildcats were 42-0 in games in which he played because he only got in when they were way ahead.
“I think that’s cool. That’s neat,” Pastner said of the matchup. “Arizona, obviously, is my alma mater, but I bleed blue and gray. It all worked out. I wore No. 12 when I was a player at Arizona, and we are the 12th seed going against Arizona.”
FIRST DANCE: During its Selection Sunday party, Northern Colorado’s president set the tone for the school’s first NCAA tournament appearance.
“It’s been a great run for us,” Kay Norton said minutes before the Bears’ first-round opponent had been announced. “But it isn’t over.”
Northern Colorado received a No. 15 seed and will play Mountain West tournament champion and No. 2 seed San Diego State in the West Regional on Thursday in Tucson, Ariz.
Some 500 alumni, boosters and residents were on hand to watch players pound their chests and raise their fists into the air at Butler Hancock Pavilion for the festive, small-town gathering. The group cheered as loudly for the announcement as when the team’s four seniors raised the Big Sky championship banner.
“We aren’t just glad to be here,” said Northern Colorado guard Devon Beitzel, the Big Sky tournament and regular-season MVP. “We don’t want this to stop. We’ve reached some of our goals this year, and we just want to keep it going.”
The Bears won their first regular-season championship, then followed it up by beating Montana 65-60 for their first Big Sky tournament title.
“Now we want to be the first team at Northern Colorado to get an NCAA tournament win,” Beitzel said.
And first-year coach B.J. Hill thinks his team has a few positives to draw on.
“This is a veteran group with a lot of experience in big-time venues,” Hill said. “There is no pressure on us. There have been only four teams that have done it as No. 15 seeds, and we just want to go and play.”
This from a program that played at the Division I level for the first time in 2006-07 and was first eligible for tournament play in 2007-08. And a team that went just 4-24 in 2006-07.
Northern Colorado has only four postseason victories since 1994, one of which came when it was a member of the Division II Northern Central Conference.
“We’ve had some rough years,” said Mike Deutcher, who played on the 1966-67 Northern Colorado team that lost to Phil Jackson and North Dakota in the Division II regional finals. “It’s unbelievable that this is finally happening to us.”
UNFAMILIAR TERRITORY: Michigan State had to sweat it out on Selection Sunday.
“We were nervous,” senior guard Kalin Lucas acknowledged.
Coaches and players gathered in a lounge just outside their locker room, fidgeting while most of the 68-team field was announced before finally finding out they had been seeded 10th and matched against seventh-seeded UCLA in the Southeast Regional on Thursday in Tampa, Fla.
It was a strange feeling for the Spartans, who have reached the Final Four the past two years and six of the last 12 under coach Tom Izzo.
“I feel fortunate to be in,” Izzo said. “But if you look at the whole body of work, we probably deserve to be in.”
Michigan State played one of the nation’s toughest schedules and won 19 games. Its last victory, over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals on Friday, might have sealed a spot in the NCAAs.
“I wasn’t as nervous today as I have been the past month,” Izzo said.
As disappointing as Michigan State has been this season, it is tough to count out Izzo in March.
His winning percentage in the NCAA tournament is .745 — only Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have fared better — and he led the Spartans to the 2000 national championship.
Michigan State started the season ranked No. 2, but a series of setbacks put the program on the bubble over the last month. The Spartans, though, did enough to extend their streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 14. Only Kansas (22) and Duke (16) have longer active streaks.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure off us because I still think expectations are high,” Izzo said. “The relief of getting in is only for the streak.”
ARE WE THERE YET? Georgia coach Mark Fox received a 4 a.m. wake-up question from his 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, on Sunday.
“She asked if we were in the big dance yet,” Fox said. “I told her she needed to go back to bed and she said, ‘Daddy, it’s Sunday. You said we’d know on Sunday if we’re in the big dance.’”
It seems everybody wanted to know the NCAA fate of Georgia, widely discussed as a bubble team.
Fox and his daughter were happy with the answer.
Georgia (21-11) made the NCAA tournament field and Fox was especially happy his team won’t have to travel far from home for its first game.
A surprisingly strong No. 10 seed in the east regional, the Bulldogs will play No. 7 seed Washington on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.
“I’ve been on pins and needles for a couple of days now,” Georgia forward Trey Thompkins said. “I wanted to be in the tournament so bad. It’s been nerve-racking for me.”
BEANTOWN BRAGGING RIGHTS: Boston University doesn’t have varsity football, and its perennially powerful hockey team has spent most of the season looking up in the standings at archrival Boston College.
But BU can claim the city’s bragging rights in basketball, of all things, after the America East champions were the only Massachusetts team picked for the NCAA tournament. While BC and Harvard were left out, BU (21-13) will play three-time champion Kansas (32-2) in Tulsa, Okla., on Friday.
“March Madness is an incredible time, and I’m just so grateful to be here. It’s just awesome,” BU guard Matt Griffin said.
The Terriers watched the selection show on TV at a Commonwealth Avenue bar Sunday night, breaking into cheers when their school came up as a No. 16 seed against the No. 1-seeded Big 12 champions. Coach Patrick Chambers, whose daughter, Grace, was sleeping on his shoulder, pumped his right fist in the air.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.