On Sunday, the Selection Committee unveiled the 68 teams that will compete in the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Both the Florida Gators and Florida State Seminoles are in the field, and the committee also provided Tampa's St. Pete Times Forum with a dream of a subregional, filled with big-name programs and intriguing matchups.
The Gators (26-7) won the SEC East division title with a 13-3 record and reached the SEC Tournament final, so their spot in the bracket was secure. But to most people's surprise, Florida rose all the way up to a #2 seed in the Southeast Regional. They will be one of the eight teams playing in Tampa on Thursday, facing the 15th-seeded UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, who won the Big West's conference tournament and received an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
(To read more about the Gators, check out Alligator Army, SB Nation's Florida blog.)
Florida State was also fairly safe heading into Selection Sunday. The Seminoles finished 21-10 overall and third in the ACC at 11-5, including a win in Tallahassee over the then top-ranked Duke Blue Devils in January. Even though their ACC tournament run ended in the quarterfinals after a game-winning basket against the Virginia Tech Hokies was disallowed, FSU made the cut as a #10 seed in the West Region. The Noles are headed to Chicago to play the #7 seed Texas A&M Aggies, and will probably face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish with a win.
(Tomahawk Nation, SB Nation's Florida State blog, is the place to go to get ready for the Noles' Tournament run.)
Now, about that Tampa subregional. Here are the four matchups scheduled for the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday, March 17. If you don't have tickets already, you'll need to hurry because they're going to go really fast now:
- East Regional: #5 West Virginia Mountaineers (Big East at-large) vs. the winner of Tuesday's "First Four" game in Dayton between the UAB Blazers (Conference USA at-large) and Clemson Tigers (ACC at-large)
- East Regional: #4 Kentucky Wildcats (SEC tournament champion) vs. #13 Princeton Tigers (Ivy League champion)
- Southeast Regional: #7 UCLA Bruins (PAC-10 at-large) vs. #10 Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten at-large)
- Southeast Regional: #2 Florida Gators (SEC at-large) vs. #15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos (Big West tournament champion)
Just a loaded group of teams with rich histories that are likely to bring large, rabid groups of fans to Tampa with them. The obvious highlight on Thursday will be the UCLA-Michigan State matchup. Even though the Bruins (22-10) crashed out of the PAC-10 tournament early, they have wins over BYU, St. John's, and Arizona (by 22 points), and they lost in the final seconds at Kansas. Meanwhile, the Spartans fell a long way from their preseason #2 ranking. Struggles during their usual tough non-conference schedule, plus some puzzling Big Ten results (a bad loss at Iowa, and narrow wins over Indiana and Northwestern) had some whispering that Michigan State may be relegated to the NIT. But a decisive win over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament might have been what put the 19-14 Spartans over the top. And with their tendency to pull it together for March Madness, they could well be a sleeper.
Either one of those teams playing Florida in the second round on Saturday, March 19 would be a big-name matchup. But even bigger would be a rematch between Kentucky and West Virginia. Last season the Wildcats were speeding towards the Final Four with their trio of talented freshmen (who all promptly left for the NBA). But in the East Regional final, they ran into the Mountaineers, whose tough-nosed defense held Kentucky to 34% shooting and 4-for-32 from three-point range. Even though the names on both teams have changed, Kentucky will want to avenge last year's 73-66 loss if the teams meet again in the second round.
Make sure to follow SB Nation and its network of team blogs throughout the NCAA Tournament for complete coverage as the field of 68 is narrowed down to the Final Four in Houston. For your office-pool convenience, this link will give you a printable bracket.