Winner could have easier NCAA Tournament path

Originally Published: February 22, 2007
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Yes, Wisconsin-Ohio State lost a little bit of its allure when Drew Neitzel started making shots from Okemos Tuesday night. Still, Sunday's matchup of red vs. red, experience vs. talent, and Bucky vs. the Buckeyes -- call it soon-to-be-former No. 1 vs. No. 1 -- remains a significant game.

And it has nothing to do with the Big Ten regular-season title. This, like almost everything else in college basketball, has to do with the NCAA Tournament.

One effect of the Tournament's becoming an event bigger than Britney Spears' latest haircut or Tom Brady's baby-mama drama is that college basketball's regular season has almost become an exercise in getting to the starting line.

Only in college basketball can a team win 20-some games, maybe even win a regular-season title, and have a season be considered a failure because of an early Tournament loss. Don't believe it? Just ask Kansas coach Bill Self.

All of this brings us back to the Badgers and Buckeyes. Here are two reasons Sunday's game remains significant: seeding and St. Louis.

When Ohio State defeated Minnesota on Sunday and appeared poised to move to No. 1, Buckeyes coach Thad Matta was asked about the importance of getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs and potentially having the chance to play in St. Louis. Matta was all but stumped by the question. He said he doesn't ever think about the Tournament until the regular season is over, adding "you just listed sites where I didn't know there were sites."

Mike Conley jr
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIREGreg Oden gets the headlines, but Mike Conley's performance could be as important.
That very well may be the case, but Sunday's game may be very significant in determining who will be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional. Both teams are among the six or seven still in the running for a top seed, and it seems unlikely both can be No. 1s.

A Wisconsin victory puts the Badgers in good shape for a top seed regardless of what happens at the Big Ten tournament. For the Buckeyes, this game is an opportunity. Win and Ohio State wins the Big Ten regular season and moves closer to a No. 1 seed.

Why is all of this so important? There are no guarantees for No. 1 seeds -- after all, none of last season's top seeds reached the Final Four in Indianapolis -- but earning a top seed is significant. A top seed is going to get as easy a first-round game as possible, and the second-round game is going to be against a team that probably had to do some heavy lifting two days earlier.

So, while the four top-seeded teams shouldn't assume they'll spend the last weekend in March in Atlanta, they shouldn't make other plans for the weekend of regional play. A year ago, all four No. 1 seeds reached the Sweet 16. Over the past four years, 14 of 16 top seeds advanced to the tournament's second weekend.

In many ways, this has been one of the only constants in the tournament. Since the tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 74 of the 88 top seeds have advanced to at least the regional semifinals (84 percent). Only twice in that period has there been a tournament in which two No. 1 seeds were knocked out on the first weekend.

In the same span, 55 of the 88 No. 2 seeds (62.5 percent) have won at least two games. Since 1999, however, only 15 of 32 No. 2 seeds (47 percent) have reached the second weekend. A difference? Most definitely.

Then there are the geographical considerations of this tournament. Should Wisconsin or Ohio State secure a No. 1 seed and end up with Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in St. Louis, it will be a huge advantage. Both are big schools with correspondingly large fan bases -- and both campuses are within a reasonable drive of St. Louis.

Alondo Tucker
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesAlando Tucker will look to bounce back after a tough second-half Tuesday night.
Regional weekends are something of a mixed bag in the NCAA Tournament when it comes to arena atmosphere. Sometimes, average-sized rooting sections for the four schools lead to an ambiance that lacks significant electricity. Other times, regional tickets are at a premium when there is a "home" team or two and the weekend becomes a mini-Final Four. When that happens for a top seed, the "home" team is almost impossible to beat.

That's what happened in 2003 for a Texas team playing in San Antonio. An even more impressive example of the phenomenon was Illinois' 2005 regional final victory over Arizona.

If that infamous game -- the one in which the Illini trailed the Wildcats by 15 points with just over four minutes to play and by eight with 63 seconds remaining -- had taken place anywhere other than in suburban Chicago, would Illinois have made the comeback? Would the game have ever gotten to overtime? While Luther Head and Deron Williams made huge shots in the comeback and unlikely hero Jack Ingram made a crucial steal, the Illini certainly got energy from an orange-dominated crowd.

The Midwest games are being played in a dome, which won't have the feel of the Kohl Center or Value City Arena, but it certainly beats the alternative. Unless a Big Ten team faces Kansas, St. Louis won't have the feel of a road game for the top seed. (That, by the way, could very well happen to the top seed in San Antonio if Texas A&M ends up as a No. 2 seed there).

The Big Ten team that doesn't get a No. 1 seed? It's going elsewhere, somewhere that isn't an easy drive (Texas) or to a smaller venue that will have higher demand for tickets (San Jose or East Rutherford, N.J.).

So, while it might be cliché to say seeding matters in the NCAA Tournament, it appears that it does. And that's why No. 1 vs. No. 1 is still important.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.