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Comfortably in NCAA tournament, Virginia faces uncomfortable opening game against Florida

College SportsVirginia CavaliersFlorida GatorsVirginia Commonwealth RamsNorth Carolina State WolfpackMissouri TigersWichita State Shockers

As suspected, Virginia was comfortably in the NCAA tournament field. The Cavaliers' opening game Friday against two-time national champion Florida in Omaha, Neb., will not approach comfortable.

"They have elite talent," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after the 68-team bracket was unveiled Sunday.

The Gators usually do.

While this is Virginia's first NCAA bid since 2007 and third in the last 15 years, it is Florida's 12th in the last 14 under Billy Donovan. The Gators won consecutive national championships in 2006 and '07, and last season reached the Elite Eight before losing in overtime to Butler.

Ranked eighth nationally in preseason, Florida (23-10) didn't quite match expectations, but half its losses came against Syracuse, Ohio State and Kentucky (three times), teams with a combined record of 90-11.

Moreover, Donovan's teams play just the frantic style that Virginia attempts to stifle with its compressed man-to-man defense and deliberate offense. The Gators average 25.5 attempts per game from beyond the 3-point arc, more than any of the Cavaliers' ACC rivals, and all five of their starters, led by guard Kenny Boynton, average between 10.3 and 16.3 points.

Florida is seeded seventh in the West Regional, Virginia 10th, perfectly fair given how both struggled recently. The Gators have lost six of their last 10, the Cavaliers (22-9) five of their last eight.

The Florida-Virginia survivor plays Sunday against either Missouri or Norfolk State. The second-seeded Tigers won the Big 12 tournament, while the 15th-seeded Spartans earned their first Division I tournament bid by winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Norfolk State need not look far for advice on how to play Missouri. The Tigers played at Old Dominion in December, and the Monarchs extended them to the closing minutes before falling 75-68.

The last time a MEAC team advanced to the NCAA's round of 32? In 2001, Hampton, a 15th seed, stunned No. 2 Iowa State of the Big 12.

In fact, a 15 hasn't beaten a 2 since. Hmmmm.

Before getting carried away with that symmetry and picking Norfolk State in the office pool, know that all-time No. 15s are 4-100 in the tournament.

The most common tournament "upset" is a 12 seed knocking off a 5, and in that vein, VCU over Wichita State will be a wildly popular choice. The Rams and Shockers play Thursday in — talk about random venues — Portland, Ore., and bank on the winner beating Indiana or New Mexico State in the following round to reach a Sweet 16 encounter with top overall seed Kentucky in Atlanta.

VCU defeated Wichita State in the 2011 BracketBusters, a victory that likely propelled the Rams to the at-large bid they parlayed into a wild run to the Final Four. Having two quality mid-majors meet this early in the tournament is a shame, since both are capable of creating serious bracket havoc.

Case in point, last season, when Butler nudged Old Dominion 60-58 on Matt Howard's loose-ball layup at the buzzer and subsequently reached its second consecutive national championship game.

VCU is the sole Colonial Athletic Association team in the field, and while regular-season champion Drexel certainly was capable of advancing in the tournament, the Dragons were doomed by their No. 226 non-conference strength-of-schedule. Conversely, Iona, a surprising field inclusion to some, played the No. 44 non-league schedule.

And this wasn't a case of the selection committee bypassing the so-called "mid-majors" for the power conferences. Eleven of the 37 at-large bids went to teams from outside the big six leagues, most since 2004 (12).

As expected, the ACC grabbed four of the at-larges with North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and North Carolina State joining automatic qualifier Florida State, which defeated UNC in Sunday's conference tournament final here in Atlanta.

The Tar Heels are a No. 1 seed for a record 14th time and are bracketed to face coach Roy Williams' former team, Kansas, in the Midwest Regional final in St. Louis. The Blue Devils are the South's No. 2 and could face Kentucky in the Elite Eight 20 years after their classic East final that ended with Christian Laettner's indelible shot at the buzzer in overtime.

FSU is the East's No. 3 seed, N.C. State the Midwest's No. 11. The Wolfpack was the 68th and final team revealed on CBS' selection show.

"It's as gut-wrenching as anything I've ever been through," Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried told reporters in Raleigh.

Wait until the games start.

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/sports/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP

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