UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) and Marquette guard Chase Ross...

UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) and Marquette guard Chase Ross (2) fight for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the championship of the Big East Conference tournament, Saturday, March 16, 2024, in New York. Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

Even before the brackets came out Sunday, March Madness was a muddled mess.

About the closest thing to a sure thing: UConn.

The defending champion Huskies earned the top seed in the NCAA Tournament, joined by Houston, Purdue and North Carolina as No. 1 seeds in a bracket that started going haywire even before the pairings were announced Sunday evening.

Of those top teams, only UConn heads into the tournament coming off a win. The others lost in their conference tournaments, yet those were hardly the only surprises over the final weekend of hoops before the sport's main event hits center stage.

Unexpected titles placed teams like Oregon, North Carolina State and even Duquesne, none of whom were projected to make the tournament, into the field of 68 via the automatic bid that goes to conference champions. The teams they beat gobbled up a handful of the 34 at-large bids, thus shrinking the number of spots available to teams on the so-called bubble.

“It was one of the most difficult that I’ve been involved in,” Charles McClelland, the chairman of the selection committee, said of the process that had everyone up until 2:30 a.m. the night before. “And I talked to some of the staff that’s been in that room for the last 20 years, and they said this is probably the most difficult selection process that they’ve been a part of.”

It showed in a bracket that had its share of head-scratchers:

Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) gets past TCU guard Avery...

Houston guard Jamal Shead (1) gets past TCU guard Avery Anderson III (3) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinal round of the Big 12 Conference tournament, Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Kansas City, Mo. Houston won 60-45. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

— Two of the last four teams in — Boise State and Colorado State — weren't even considered on the bubble by most bracketologists.

“A little surprised to be honest," Boise State coach Leon Rice said of his team's No. 10 seed.

— Some of the teams left out — St. John's and Oklahoma — were thought to be safely in as late as Saturday. St. John's decided not to even play in the NIT.

“How is St. John's so far off the cutline?” said UConn coach Dan Hurley, who was surprised only three Big East teams made it.

Purdue guard Lance Jones (55) celebrates after making a basket...

Purdue guard Lance Jones (55) celebrates after making a basket while fouled during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Michigan State in the quarterfinal of the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 15, 2024, in Minneapolis. At right is Purdue's Zach Edey (15). Credit: AP/Abbie Parr

— Florida Atlantic and Texas A&M were considered bubble teams but ended up with 8 and 9 seeds, respectively.

All of this could be fodder for the growing conversation about expanding the bracket to 76, maybe 80 teams. Under that scenario, bubble teams like Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and even Indiana State would almost certainly be in.

The tournament starts Tuesday with two First Four games, including a matchup between Virginia and Colorado State. The 32 first-round games take place Thursday and Friday. The Final Four is set for April 6-8 in Glendale, Arizona.

UConn the favorite

UConn, which opens Friday against Stetson, is the favorite according to FanDuel Sportsbook and is trying to become the first repeat champion since Florida in 2006-07. The Huskies (31-3) are on a seven-game win streak and are tied with James Madison for most wins in the nation.

For all its excellence this season, UConn ended up in an East region with two of last year’s Final Four teams (San Diego State and Florida Atlantic) along with Iowa State, which is coming off a 69-41 win over Houston and was thought, for a minute, to be top-seed material.

“If we're able to get to our identity ... and then we play harder than you, we keep ourselves from being vulnerable that way,” Hurley said.

Conference bragging rights

Both the SEC and Big 12 placed eight teams in the field, while the Big Ten and Mountain West each had six.

Speaking of pride: Michigan State extended its nation-leading streak to 26 straight years in the tournament. The ninth-seeded Spartans will play Mississippi State on Thursday, the same day No. 5 seed Gonzaga plays No. 12 McNeese. In February, the Zags were considered a bubble team, but a stretch of nine wins in 10 games changed that, and coach Mark Few’s team made the field for the 25th consecutive year.

Injury worries

Injury-riddled Kansas comes in as a 4 seed, set to play Samford, after two of its best players, Hunter Dickinson and Kevin McCullar Jr., sat out the Jayhawks’ 20-point loss in their Big 12 Tournament opener.

Florida is a 7 seed, and will play the winner of the Boise State-Colorado play-in game, but the Gators suffered a big blow when big man Micah Handlogten broke his leg early in the SEC title game.

Small fry

The Ivy League is sending Yale, a 13 seed that needed a furious late comeback and a buzzer-beating basket against Brown to win the title and set up a game Friday against No. 4 Auburn. And Saint Peter’s back in the tournament, two years after making an unlikely run to the Elite Eight as a No. 15. This year, the Peacocks are 15 seeds again, opening against Tennessee in the Midwest.

Should Tennessee advance, coach Rick Barnes could face his old school, No. 7 Texas, which opens against the Virginia-Colorado State winner.

Meanwhile, Duquesne, the surprise winner of the Atlantic-10, is back in the tournament for the first time since 1977. A game against No. 6 BYU awaits.

Job security

Back in 1999, head coach Dan Monson and assistant Mark Few led Gonzaga on a surprise run all the way to the Elite Eight. Monson now coaches Long Beach State and, just last week, was relieved of his duties pending the end of the season. Funny enough, Monson’s team went on a run and won the Big West to get a ticket to the tournament. The 15th-seeded Beach open Thursday against No. 2 Arizona.

“As Mark Few said in a text, why don’t we have a run in the first year and one in the last,” Monson said after his job-extending win.


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