The bracket is back: After 2020 cancelation, the NCAA Tournament returns, and college basketball feels whole again

Five Pac-12 teams, plus BYU and Utah State, make field of 68, which begins Thursday with First Four

(Darron Cummings | AP) Fans arrive for an NCAA college basketball championship game between Illinois and Ohio State at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Sunday, March 14, 2021, in Indianapolis.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant everyone had to wait two years for an NCAA Tournament bracket reveal, so, really, what was another five minutes?

As 4 p.m. neared Sunday afternoon, and CBS readied to reveal the field of 68, the Big Ten Tournament championship game between two of the nation’s best teams, Ohio State and Illinois, went to overtime at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The Fighting Illini outlasted the Buckeyes, seemingly putting a hammerlock on one of the four No. 1 seeds. Then, finally, Bob Christianson’s “CBS NCAA Basketball Theme” began playing. Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, and Seth Davis appeared on screen, and to the credit of CBS executives, they got right to the bracket reveal. No chatter, few pleasantries, just the seeds and the matchups.

At that moment, a year after the infancy of the pandemic forced the cancellation of one America’s great annual sports traditions, college basketball felt whole again.

Just like any other year, there were not a ton of surprises at the top. Unbeaten and bidding to become the first team to finish a season that way since 1976, Gonzaga is the No. 1 overall seed, joined on that seed line by Baylor, Illinois and Michigan. Alabama and Houston guaranteed themselves 2-seeds earlier Sunday by winning the SEC and American Athletic Conference Tournaments, respectively, joined by a pair of Big Ten programs, Iowa and Ohio State.

Just like any other year, the real juice wasn’t at the top of the field, but instead zeroed in on two things. Specific first-round and potential second-round matchups of note, and who wound up on the right and wrong sides of the bubble.

Reeling Villanova, which lost star senior guard Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury late in the regular season, has to deal with one-loss Big South champion Winthrop in the South Region’s 5-12 matchup. Two of the five Pac-12 teams in the field are also involved in 5-12 matchups, which are always trendy first-round upset picks. East No. 5 seed Colorado has to deal with red-hot No. 12 Georgetown, which is coming off the Big East Tournament crown, and Midwest No. 12 seed Oregon State, which won the Pac-12 Tournament late Saturday night, gets No. 5 Tennessee, which feels like a tough ask for the Beavers.

“It’s safe to that their position on the seed list suffered some because of the injury,” selection committee chair and Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said of Gillespie and Villanova on a conference call with reporters. “There were of course some losses they incurred afterwards, but also some teams behind them that played really, really well.”

Tasty potential second-round matchups are abound. Michigan-LSU in the East, Kansas-USC in the West, Baylor-North Carolina in the South, Illinois vs. Loyola-Chicago and West Virginia-San Diego State in the Midwest.

The Selection Sunday bubble situation, with local and Pac-12 fingerprints on it, did not disappoint in terms of drama.

Utah State not only made the field, but it avoided the First Four, which indicates the Aggies were in safely, without a ton of late debate from the selection committee. UCLA was a different story.

The Bruins faded horribly down the stretch, sliding to bubble status as losers of four straight and six of 10 to close the season. When Syracuse showed up as an 11-seed in the Midwest Region, there seemed to be a real possibility the Bruins would get left out. Instead, the Bruins grabbed the final No. 11 seed in the East Region, which includes a high-profile First Four matchup on Thursday. The winner there advances to face No. 6 seed BYU Saturday in the first round.

“We just tried to evaluate them against other teams and the committee looks at it from a variety of lenses,” Barnhart said. “We had to ask ourselves if they had enough to get in the field. They did, but we felt their seed was hurt a little bit by the way they played at the end of the year.”

The Cougars will have an interesting draw either way. Michigan State is an uncharacteristic 15-12 overall, but made a February charge through the Big Ten to place itself on the bubble. UCLA had the aforementioned late-season struggles, but its A-game was enough to put it in control of the Pac-12 for nearly three-quarters of the season.

A potential second-round matchup with third-seeded Texas would pit two teams that rank in the top 35 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Before what was a highly entertaining Pac-12 Tournament last week, the league was in line to get four teams to the NCAA Tournament, so it came as a nice boon when Oregon State stole the automatic bid late Saturday night.

None of those five Pac-12 teams were expected to be above a 5-seed, and none of them were, but Oregon as the No. 7 seed in the West Region feels worth taking a first-weekend flier on. The Ducks get VCU in the first round, then potentially No. 2 seed Iowa for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.

Oregon won 10 of 11 to win the league’s regular-season crown before bowing out of the Pac-12 Tournament in a Friday semifinal against Oregon State.

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