The invitations to the biggest dance in college sports have been extended and now it's time for the madness to begin.
Ohio State, Duke, Kansas and Pittsburgh grabbed the four number one seeds as the Men's NCAA Basketball Tournament field was announced Sunday, setting the stage for what is perhaps the most exciting three weeks in American sports.
The expanded 68-team tournament tips off March 15-16 with a new series of play-in games called the "First Four." In one contest, Clemson takes on the University of Alabama-Birmingham for the right to play West Virginia and in the other match up, USC plays Virginia Commonwealth with the winner getting a date with Georgetown.
As is true every year, there are a plethora of story lines to follow as the drama unfolds around the country. Among the most interesting:
- Will the Big East prove to be tourney tough? 11, yes, 11 teams from the Big East made the field, a rercord showing. The conference had eight teams in last year's tournament, but only two made it to the Sweet Sixteen - Syracuse and West Virginia - and only the Mountaineers advanced to the Final Four. With this many teams in the field, the conference would probably be disappointed with anything less than five Sweet Sixteen teams and half of the Final Four. Pittsburgh, which has been among the nation's elite all season, and a streaking UConn and Cuse seem primed to make good showings, but Georgetown and Villanova have faltered as of late and could be high-profile early outs if they can't rally their considerable talents.
- Can Duke repeat? The Blue Devils avenged a regular-season capping loss to UNC in resounding style in the ACC Championship Game, pounding the Tarheels 75-58 and proving that they are indeed worthy of sitting on the one line for the second straight year. Led by senior guard Nolan Smith, Duke looks ready to make another deep run and has wins over seven teams in the field. However, a potential match up with Texas in the Sweet Sixteen could be a trap, as the Longhorns have one of the most talented teams in the county, though they've not been playing up to their potential in the last third of the season.
- How legit is Ohio State? For most of the year, the Buckeyes looked unstoppable. Led by super freshman Jared Sullinger and blessed with good experience, depth and a diverse group of scorers, the Big Ten champs reeled off 24 straight wins to open the season before dropping games to Wisconsin and Purdue within seven days of each other in February. But they seem to have righted the ship of late, torching Wisconsin 93-65 in their rematch and they head into the tournament on a seven game winning streak. But the boys from Columbus were done no favors by the selection committee, as they are in what is generally viewed as the strongest bracket. UNC, Syracuse, Kentucky, Villanova and West Virginia are all in the East and could trip up the Buckeyes, already installed as a 7-2 favorite to win the tournament by the Las Vegas Hilton.
- The committee picked who? Members of the selection committee shouldn't expect to get warm welcomes in Boulder, Blacksburg, Tuscaloosa, Moraga, or Chestnut Hill anytime soon. Colorado, Virginia Tech, Alabama, St. Mary's and Boston College all just narrowly missed the field, with most experts especially puzzled over the exclusions of the Buffaloes and the Hokies. Both teams were dinged by weak out-of-conference schedules, but Colorado has six wins over teams in the top 50 and three of Virginia Tech's losses came to Kansas State, UNLV and Purdue - all teams in the field. Plus the Hokies have a win over Duke on their resume. UAB, a team that most likely pushed Tech out, lost by 21 to Duke in December.