The Big East maintained its reputation as the best basketball conference in the country by tying its own record with eight teams in the NCAA Tournament when the field was announced on Selection Sunday. But regular-season champion Syracuse barely hung on to a No. 1 seed in the West Regional after losing its last two games and being affected by an injury to post man Arinze Onuaku.
Big East Tournament champion West Virginia finished with a top-four RPI rating but was dropped to a second seed in the tough East Regional opposite top-seeded Kentucky, which is second overall in the field. Big 12 champion Kansas was named the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional and overall in the tournament. ACC champion Duke gained the top seed in the South Regional and was placed third overall ahead of the Orange, who open in Buffalo against America East champion Vermont but then would have to travel to Salt Lake City for the regional.
"We're proud to be a No. 1 seed,'' Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "This team has worked extremely hard, been consistent all year.''
Onuaku suffered what was diagnosed as a right quadriceps injury during the Orange's Big East quarterfinals loss to Georgetown, and although reports out of Syracuse indicate he is expected to be available, there was obvious concern by the selection committee.
"Obviously, the big center for Syracuse got banged up,'' selection committee chairman Dan Guerrero said in a national conference call last night. "That's an issue to some degree.''
Guerrero said West Virginia was "in the mix'' for a top seed with Duke and Syracuse, but "we put value on the way Duke finished. They did win their conference and their conference tournament. That carried the day.''
It was another strong year for the Big East, which placed seven teams in the top 24 in the tournament. Villanova is the second seed in the South, Georgetown is third in the Midwest and Pitt is third in the West. Sixth-seeded Marquette was placed in the brutal East Regional, where it could meet West Virginia in the Sweet 16 if it gets past third-seeded New Mexico, and Notre Dame is sixth seed in the South, which has three Big East teams, including ninth-seeded Louisville.
Guerrero said the list of teams on the bubble required both hands to count, but it didn't sound as though Seton Hall received strong consideration as a possible ninth team from the Big East.
"They had a number of tough losses to good teams,'' Guerrero said of the Pirates. "In the end, you look at strength of schedule, and their non-conference schedule was good, not great. They didn't have any bad losses, but they didn't have enough to get in.''
Syracuse wasn't the only team hurt by an injury. Purdue was ranked in the top five nationally much of the season but was dropped to a fourth seed in the South because of season-ending knee surgery for Robbie Hummel. "We saw several games after Robbie went down,'' Guerrero said. "We felt they weren't the same team. Purdue did slip, no question.''
After the Big East, the Big 12 placed seven teams in the field, and the ACC got six. But 23-8 Virginia Tech, which finished fourth in the ACC, was left out because of a poor non-conference schedule. Illinois of the Big Ten and Mississippi State from the SEC also were close calls that didn't make it. UTEP and Utah State got in despite losing in their conference tournaments because both won regular-season conference titles and had numerous victories over top-100 teams.