Monday March 16th, 2009

The bracket is set, leaving only two options for anyone who cares about college hoops: rejoice or complain.

Sunday's selections brought plenty of cheer to all but one of the power conferences, but they cast a pall over the mid-majors. Meanwhile, Mississippi State's upset of Tennessee in the SEC Tournament final wreaked havoc in every corner of the bracket. As the dust settles on Selection Sunday, we'll examine who's hot and who's not.

Louisville

The Cardinals weren't even in the discussion for a No. 1 seed two weeks ago, but they certainly deserve the No. 1 overall seed after winning the regular-season title and the tournament title in the nation's best conference. Coach Rick Pitino, point forward Terrence Williams and NBA scout magnet Earl Clark now have what the selection committee considers the easiest path to the Final Four.

Since a loss at Notre Dame on Feb. 12, the Cardinals have won 10 in a row. Louisville, which fell to North Carolina in the Elite Eight last year, has a potentially tricky matchup with Wake Forest in the Sweet 16. If the seeds hold in the Midwest Region, an Elite Eight matchup between Louisville and No. 2 seed Michigan State should provide an interesting contrast in styles.

Anthony Grant

The Virginia Commonwealth coach's team knocked off Duke in the first round two years ago, and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley was in the Richmond, Va., airport on his way to offer Grant a job when Billy Donovan called to tell Foley he had changed his mind about coaching the Orlando Magic.

This year, Grant's 11th-seeded Rams are a trendy upset pick against a team that has cachet because of tremendous success in recent years and not necessarily because of a great 2008-09 season. If VCU beats UCLA on Thursday in Philadelphia, Grant will have his choice of job opening this offseason.

Duke

The Blue Devils are 8-1 since Elliot Williams replaced Greg Paulus in the starting lineup. Williams, a freshman from Memphis, Tenn., hasn't put up monster numbers (6.9 ppg, 4 rpg) as a starter, but his energy and defense have brought out the best in his teammates. Sunday, Duke won its first ACC Tournament title since 2006 with a 79-69 victory against Florida State. Now, the Blue Devils will try to reach the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, the last of nine-year stretch in which Duke reached at least the Sweet 16 every year. That won't be easy, because if the seeds hold, Duke will face Texas in the second round Saturday.

Big Blue

The jacked-up Utah State mascot, who looks like the poster bull for recombinant bovine growth hormone, did his part to help the Aggies make the field. With Utah State trailing by one with seven seconds remaining in its WAC semifinal against New Mexico State, Big Blue took a $100 dare from a Nevada fan and ripped the fake moustache off the lip of New Mexico State mascot Pistol Pete during a timeout. While both sets of Aggies drew up a plays, Pistol Pete tried to turn Big Blue into hamburger.

After order was restored, Utah State's Tyler Newbold made a 15-footer with 3.1 seconds remaining to send the Aggies to Saturday's final, which they won to secure an automatic bid. Given the calamity in the BCS conference tournaments, the Aggies might not have gotten an an-large bid. Big Blue was benched for the WAC final, but here's hoping he's on duty when Utah State faces Marquette in Boise on Friday.

The Big Ten

The same conference that had a February game between a tourney team and a bubble team end with a 38-33 score put as many teams in the tournament (seven) as the Big East and the ACC. It seems the selection committee rewarded the Big Ten bubble teams that scheduled challenging non-conference opponents. Michigan beat UCLA at home, split a pair of games against Duke and lost at Maryland. Wisconsin went 18-12, but the Badgers played UConn, Virginia Tech, Marquette and Texas in the pre-conference season. Minnesota (21-10) probably made the field based on the strength of a Dec. 20 win against No. 1 overall seed Louisville. That Nov. 29 win against North Dakota State isn't looking so bad, either. "We tried to deliver the message this year that it's your entire body of work," selection committee chair -- and SEC commissioner -- Mike Slive said on the CBS selection show. "It starts in November in December."

The SEC

We probably can put to rest the myth that the conference affiliation of selection committee members affects the number of bids each conference receives. Slive runs the whole darn thing, and his league received just three bids -- and it would have received only two (LSU and Tennessee) if not for Mississippi State's upset of the Volunteers in Sunday's tournament final.

We knew the SEC was bad, but it wasn't clear whether the committee would punish the league for mediocre play and abysmal out-of-conference scheduling. It did. Regular-season champ LSU is a No. 8 seed. Eastern division champ Tennessee is a No. 9 seed. Mississippi State, the big-conference bracket buster, is a 13. Auburn (22-11) was one of the nation's hottest teams down the stretch, but remember what Slive said: It's about the body of work. Auburn lost to Dayton and Northern Iowa on a neutral floor and lost at Xavier. The Tigers' only decent non-conference win came at Virginia. South Carolina, which went 10-6 in SEC play during the regular season, is home because its toughest non-conference opponents were Clemson, Baylor, Princeton and College of Charleston. Had the Gamecocks scheduled some decent competition, they might not be trying to win their third NIT title since 2005.

Saint Mary's (and the rest of the mid-major bubble teams)

Only four teams from non-BCS leagues received at-large bids Sunday, down from 12 in 2004. Thanks to Mississippi State, St. Mary's, Creighton or San Diego State probably fell out of the bracket. St. Mary's is the most interesting case. The Gaels (26-6) were 18-1 before star guard Patty Mills broke his right hand at Gonzaga on Jan. 29. The pride of Canberra, Australia, returned for last week's West Coast Conference tournament, but the Gaels lost to Gonzaga in the final.

A hastily scheduled game against Eastern Washington on Friday apparently didn't help the Gaels enough; they were passed over in favor of the likes of Minnesota and Maryland. Slive said the committee is conference-blind when assembling the bracket, but considering the drop in at-large opportunities for teams from non-BCS conferences, maybe that blindness only applies to the big boys. This year, the abundance of money-conference teams will deprive us of the chance to watch potential All-Namers Patty, Booker Woodfox (Creighton), P'Allen Stinnet (Creighton) and Mehdi Cheriet (San Diego State).

Memphis

In a live shot on CBS just before the selection show, Tigers coach John Calipari said the reason Conference USA doesn't get any respect because Memphis wins too many games. And he's correct. The sheer domination makes it tough to figure out whether Memphis is that good or whether the rest of the conference is that bad. To paint a clearer picture, Calipari scheduled Xavier (neutral-site loss), Georgetown (road loss), Syracuse (home loss), Cincinnati (home win), Tennessee (road win) and Gonzaga (road win).

Did the Tigers (31-3) deserve a No. 1 seed over UConn, North Carolina or Pittsburgh? That's a tough sell. But know this. Inside his locker room, Calipari will turn that No. 2 seed into the slight to end all slights. And it will provide motivation for a group that has as much raw talent as any team in America.

Teams at less than full strength

Remember when Marquette looked like a potential Final Four team? It wasn't that long ago. But after guard Dominic James broke his foot Feb. 25, the Golden Eagles were a different team. Now, they're a No. 6 seed headed to Boise to play a dangerous Utah State team and its even more dangerous mascot.

Illinois players can sympathize. Guard Chester Frazier, the Illini's glue guy, injured his right hand in practice last week and he wore a cast on the sideline while sitting out Big Ten tournament games against Michigan and Purdue. Coach Bruce Weber has declined to offer many details about the severity of the injury, so Frazier's status could remain a mystery until the Illini face Western Kentucky in the first round.

Nationwide productivity

The Dow Jones rose a little last week, but expect the nation's economy to head south again this week as office drones across the country worry more about their brackets than whether they put that new cover sheet on their most recent TPS report. CBS is doing its part to aid in the slacking; the network has brought back March Madness On Demand, which allows viewers to watch every tournament game streamed live on the network's Web site.

This year, CBS is adding a high-quality option, which will provide a picture that comes close to HD quality. The network also is bringing back the Boss Button, which, when clicked by a slacking employee, will call up a dummy spreadsheet and hide North Carolina-Radford.

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