Big East sends nine teams to the Big Dance

Fab Melo and Baye Keita of the Syracuse Fab Melo and Baye Keita of the Syracuse Orange celebrate after defeating the Connecticut Huskies during the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. (March 8, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Six of the top seven teams in The Associated Press college basketball poll suffered losses in their conference tournaments, which could be a harbinger for more March Madness when the NCAA Tournament begins with the First Four Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. So the selection committee rewarded regular-season consistency Sunday by naming Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Michigan State as the four top seeds, in that order.

Of those teams, only Big Ten champion Michigan State prevailed in its conference tournament, beating Ohio State Sunday, but the Spartans were sent to the West Regional.

"As it turned out, this game put the No. 1 seed into the field," selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway said of the Big Ten final.

No. 1 overall seed Kentucky, which saw its 24-game winning streak ended by Vanderbilt in Sunday's SEC final, is the top team in the South. Syracuse heads the East Regional, whose final will be in Boston. North Carolina goes to the Midwest Regional and a possible Elite Eight meeting with second-seeded Kansas, which once was coached by the Tar Heels' Roy Williams, in the regional final in St. Louis.

The Final Four begins March 31 in New Orleans.

Once again, the Big East led the way in terms of conference representation with nine bids, two short of the record 11 it received a year ago. Syracuse will be joined in the East by sixth-seeded Cincinnati and 10th-seeded West Virginia. Marquette earned the third seed in the West, where Big East Tournament champ Louisville is seeded fourth.

Defending national champion Connecticut made it into the field as the ninth seed in the South, where Notre Dame is the seventh seed.

Georgetown earned the third seed in the Midwest. South Florida received a spot in the First Four against California for the 12th seed in the Midwest.

Seton Hall was the only remaining possibility from the Big East, but the Pirates' bubble popped after they lost 10 of their final 15 games. On the other hand, MAAC regular-season champion Iona was the surprise bubble team to make it into the field after being upset by Fairfield in the conference tournament. As one of the last four in, the Gaels will meet BYU in Dayton's First Four.

"We tried to play teams or conferences ranked above ours, and most of those games we really had to play on the road to get those games," said second-year Iona coach Tim Cluess, who previously was at LIU Post. "Those were the teams we had to play to give ourselves a chance."

Northeast Conference champion LIU Brooklyn earned its second straight automatic berth and was matched against Michigan State in the West. America East champion Vermont, which won Saturday's conference final at Stony Brook, also was placed in the First Four against Lamar of the Southland Conference, with the winner moving on to face North Carolina.

Ivy League champion Harvard, which qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946 and only the second time ever, was matched against Vanderbilt.

The Big Ten and Big 12 each got six teams into the field, the ACC had five, and the SEC's four was matched by the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. The Pac-12 got only two in the 68-team field: Cal in the First Four and tournament champ Colorado.

Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington was left out, as was Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champion Drexel. The Dragons merely won 25 of 26 games before losing the CAA Tournament final to Virginia Commonwealth, which reached the Final Four last year.

Said Drexel coach Bruiser Flint, "There must be a lot of people on the basketball committee that don't know too much about basketball."

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