Draymond Green (23) and Austin Thornton (13) have played key roles in Michigan State's success this season.
This time around, the drama began before the brackets even came out.
Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina all earned top seeding for the NCAA tournament Sunday despite surprising weekend losses that brought more intrigue to the three-week, 67-game tournament better known as March Madness.
Michigan State earned the other No. 1 seed and was the only one of the four top-billed teams to win its conference tournament. The Spartans defeated Ohio State 68-64 in the Big Ten title game — a contest widely viewed as the game for the last No. 1 seed, even if selection committee chairman Jeff Hathaway wouldn't quite go there.
"As it turned out, this game put the No. 1 seed into the field," he said.
While No. 2 seeds Kansas, Duke, Missouri and Ohio State wonder whether they could have been rated higher, teams such as Drexel, Seton Hall, Mississippi State and Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington curse what might have been. Those bubble teams were left out, and all will be wondering how Iona, California and South Florida made it.
In the moments immediately after the brackets came out, the Iona-Drexel debate was getting the most traction.
"They weren't the last team in," Hathaway said of Iona. "They had a very good nonconference strength of schedule; they were 44. I know a lot of people are going to try to compare them to Drexel, and Drexel was well over 200. ... We think we got that one right. Obviously, a lot of people will debate it, and that's what makes it fun."
There were 11 at-large teams from the so-called mid-major conferences, four more than last year and the most since 2004 when 12 made it. Though the committee claims not to consider a team's conference when it picks the bracket, this was nonetheless a nod to the free-for-all this tournament can be. Last year, 4,000-student Butler finished as national runner-up for the second straight season, while VCU, of the Colonial Athletic Conference, went from one of the last teams in all the way to the Final Four.
Who might this year's VCU be?
It's the question being asked across the country.
Kentucky (32-2) and Syracuse (31-2) each enter the tournament with only two losses. Both were shoo-ins for top seeds — Hathaway all but said so last week — though their recent losses certainly will add more guesswork to those millions of brackets being filled out at spring training sites, corporate board rooms and everywhere else across America.
"There were 112 teams with more than 20 wins," Hathaway said. "We talked a lot about parity at the high end of the field and about quality throughout the field. Bottom line, it was about who did you play, where'd you play them and how did you do?"
Some losses, though, were less important than others, and apparently, losing in the conference tournament didn't cost Syracuse, Kentucky or North Carolina. Those losses could have created chaos, but the committee had the teams more or less cemented into top spots, with John Calipari's Wildcats as the No. 1 overall seed. Kentucky will play in the South region and potentially could play six games without having to leave the Southeast.
"It's one thing off our backs, 22 games in a row or whatever," Calipari said, of his team's winning streak, which actually reached 24 games. "It's done now. Now let's just go onto these three weekends. We've got a weekend in front of us. It's going to be a bear. Know what? Good. Throw anything you want to at us."
The Wildcats will open the tournament in Louisville against the winner of a first-round game between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, but it gets tougher from there. A possible second-round opponent is defending champion Connecticut, with No. 4 Indiana possibly waiting beyond that. Before Sunday, the Hoosiers — who return to the tournament after a four-year drought — were the only team to beat Kentucky this season.
Second-seeded Duke got serious consideration for moving up to a No. 1 seed, but an 18-point loss to North Carolina in the regular-season finale and a loss to Florida State in the ACC tournament certainly hurt. The Blue Devils are on the same side of the bracket with 11th-seeded Colorado, a team that got snubbed last year but won its way into the bracket this time by taking the Pac-12 tournament.
The Pac-12 was woefully weak this year, placing only two teams and leaving Washington on the outside. This marked the first time the regular-season champion of a power conference got left out.
In the West, top-seeded Michigan State will begin its quest for its seventh Final Four since 1999 against No. 16 LIU. The bottom of the bracket features No. 2 Missouri, which won the Big 12 tournament but got penalized for a nonconference schedule ranked in the 300s.
"That hasn't changed at all over the years," Hathaway said, when asked whether the committee rewards programs that beef up their schedules.
In the East region, No. 1 seed Syracuse comes in smarting from a loss to Cincinnati in the Big East semifinals. Other matchups include No. 3 Florida State, which went 4-1 against Duke and North Carolina this year, against No. 14 St. Bonaventure, which was a surprise winner of the A-10 conference tournament and took a bubble spot away.
"We had five teams on the board, and we were talking about those five teams all morning and through that game to see where they'd be going," Hathaway said. "There was a lot of conversation about those last five teams."
Among the five Hathaway could have been talking about were Miami, Northwestern and Nevada. All had flaws, as did Iona, though the Gaels' strength of schedule appeared to carry them through.
"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," Iona coach Tim Cluess said. "We spent seven, eight weeks in a row on the road this year, but those were the teams we had to play to give ourselves a chance."
Hathaway said the committee gave Kansas heavy consideration as a No. 1 team. The Jayhawks, however, lost to Baylor in the Big 12 semifinals.
"We're fine with it," coach Bill Self said. "I don't think we deserve to be better than a 2. We may have been if we'd played well in Kansas City, but we didn't. I think after everyone gets through talking about the seeds, it's about matchups anyway."
Among the most intriguing would be a Midwest regional final pitting No. 1 North Carolina and former Jayhawks coach Roy Williams against Kansas — a game that would be played in St. Louis.