Can Florida become college basketball's first repeat champion in 15 years?
The NCAA thinks so.
The Gators were made the top seed in the 2007 tournament by the NCAA men's basketball committee, which selects 34 at-large teams and seeds the 65-team field. Florida was placed there with good reason, as Joakim Noah and four other veteran starters ran their postseason winning streak to 12 games with another Southeastern Conference tournament title yesterday.
Coach Billy Donovan's gang did so at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, which happens to be the site of this year's Final Four.
It was last held there in 2002, when Maryland ruled. The Terps ended a two-year tournament absence with a resounding vote of confidence, as a team on the bubble a month ago got the fourth seed in the Midwest Regional, where it opens in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday against No. 13 seed Davidson.
If form holds, Florida would be joined in the Final Four by Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio State, the other No. 1 seeds, who also - not coincidentally - won regular-season and tournament titles in their respective conferences. All have star power, as the Jayhawks have Brandon Rush, the Tar Heels lean on masked man Tyler Hansbrough and the Buckeyes get better as Greg Oden's once-broken right hand gets stronger.
Of course, the bracket never plays out as expected in the NCAA tournament, which last year featured a run to the Final Four by George Mason, a controversial at-large selection. While the Patriots had no chance of being selected this time after falling to the middle of the Colonial Athletic Association, fellow CAA member Drexel, Syracuse and West Virginia were among notable at-large omissions.
The Atlantic Coast Conference led the way, with seven teams. Duke, the last repeat champion, in 1991 and '92, has a No. 6 seed, its lowest since 1996.
The Big Ten and Pacific-10, with six teams apiece, will also send a majority of their members. The Big Ten appeared to get an inordinate amount of respect, as Ohio State and Wisconsin built glittering records in an otherwise mediocre league.
The Big East is also sending six, but with a mega-membership of 16, that is a disappointment, albeit not as large as the Missouri Valley Conference's from getting only one at-large after putting two in last season's Sweet 16. Conference tournament losses by Butler in the Horizon, Nevada in the Western Athletic and Xavier in the Atlantic 10 moved them into a crowded at-large pot and spilled Drexel et al. to the National Invitation Tournament.
Others getting snubbed: Niagara has 11 straight wins and a Rating Percentage Index above those of Weber State, Central Connecticut and Jackson State, but it has to go to Dayton, Ohio, for tomorrow's play-in game against Florida A&M; Davidson's 13-game win streak and an RPI above Virginia's doesn't jibe with its 13th seed and date with Maryland; Winthrop, an 11th seed, has won 18 straight since a loss Jan. 2 at Texas A&M.;
The hottest team in the land is Memphis, which has won 22 straight since a loss Dec. 20 at Arizona, where coach Lute Olson is adding to a streak of his own, as his 23rd consecutive tournament team ties the record Dean Smith set at North Carolina.
Southern Maryland native Tubby Smith took Kentucky to regional finals in 1999, 2003 and '05, but he's on the coaching hot seat because the Wildcats haven't been to the Final Four since they won the title in 1998. Kentucky opens with Villanova; a Wildcat will growl.
Arizona's and Olson's Wildcats would face Florida in the second round, one of many compelling potential matchups.
UCLA, which fell from a No. 1 seed when it lost in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament, could renew its history with Gonzaga in the West's second round, then play Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16. Before he rebuilt the Bruins with talent like Arron Afflalo, coach Ben Howland turned the Panthers into a Big East power by recruiting potential like Aaron Gray's.
Ohio State-Xavier would be a very hot ticket in a second-round South game in Lexington, Ky. The East could produce a second-round border clash that was a staple of the defunct Southwest Conference, Arkansas-Texas. The Longhorns have this year's model, Prince George's County native Kevin Durant, a 6-foot-9 freshman who is expected to leap to the NBA.
ACC Player of the Year Jared Dudley spent the first half of his Boston College career in the Big East; it would seem like old times Saturday in the East in Winston-Salem, N.C., if he came up against Georgetown.
The Hoyas and Memphis are streaking second seeds that could add to the considerable impact Baltimoreans have had on the tournament this decade.
The South is set up for an Ohio State-Memphis final. The Buckeyes have Oden, a 7-1 freshman who is the best big man to grace the college game in decades. The Tigers would counter with former Douglass High star Joey Dorsey, the Defensive Player of the Year in Conference USA.
Georgetown was sputtering back in November, until coach John Thompson III made DaJuan Summers a starter. A year ago, the 6-8 Summers was at McDonogh. Now, the Hoyas are the chic pick, over North Carolina, in the East.
If the bracket holds up, Maryland's second-round foe would be Butler, which has gotten a major boost from Mike Green, a transfer from Towson. The Terps would face defending champion Florida in the Sweet 16 and Wisconsin in the regional final.
West: UCLA reached the 2006 championship game. It's the No. 2 seed in this regional, where the 8-9 game is Kentucky against Villanova.
South: Coming off losses to Wake Forest and N.C. State, Virginia has an RPI of 55, normally NIT territory. It's the No. 4 seed here.
SOMETHING WE SAID?
Air Force, Florida State, Syracuse and West Virginia are among the teams left out. None has as big a gripe as Drexel, which won at Villanova and Syracuse.
THIS YEAR'S MASON?
George Mason reached the Final Four as an 11th seed last season. The teams on that line this time are George Washington, Stanford, Virginia Commonwealth and Winthrop.
THIS YEAR'S 'MELO?
Syracuse was a No. 3 seed when it followed Carmelo Anthony to the title in 2003. Texas, seeded fourth in the East, has a similarly charismatic, precocious talent in Kevin Durant, who would be a shoo-in for national Player of the Year if he weren't a freshman.