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The madness starts tonight in earnest

The Baltimore Sun

Super Tuesday might have had a little more significance to the nation's psyche than Selection Sunday, but what has become one of the most anticipated events in sports will unfold tonight.

How it all ends will depend on the 65 teams chosen, the way the teams are seeded and how the 2008 NCAA men's basketball tournament plays out between Tuesday's play-in game and the April 7 championship game in San Antonio.

Here are some ways to look at tonight's selections:

Bubble watch

The proverbial bubble proved to be trouble this season for an unusually large number of teams from the major conferences, most notably the two teams that played for the championship last season.

Florida and Ohio State had chances to keep their hopes alive of returning to the tournament but couldn't lock down bids late in the regular season and then lost early in their conference tournaments.

But the Gators and Buckeyes were not alone in their inability to secure NCAA tournament spots down the stretch.

Maryland blew an interminable number of chances, including the now-infamous 20-point second-half meltdown against Clemson on March 2, and finished the season with five losses in its final six games.

Among the other teams that might also have played their way into the National Invitation Tournament with late-season implosions were Baylor, Kansas State and Syracuse.

An interesting scenario involves Kentucky. The Wildcats went 12-4 in the Southeastern Conference but were considered to have a questionable resume. Will Kentucky get special consideration from the selection committee because of what happened this weekend in Atlanta, where the team's quarterfinal game against Georgia was postponed because of the damage at the Georgia Dome caused by a tornado? The Wildcats lost, 60-56, yesterday.

No clear-cut favorite

Unlike most seasons, there's no prohibitive choice to win the championship. Even the teams that are expected to be top seeds have shown weaknesses that can be exposed in the NCAA tournament.

Poor free-throw shooting and a sluggish half-court offense hurt Memphis in its only loss of the season, last month to Tennessee. UCLA has made the Final Four the past two seasons, but the Bruins have survived several close calls lately and are battling injuries.

North Carolina seems to be peaking with the return of point guard Ty Lawson and the relentless performance of Player of the Year candidate Tyler Hansbrough, but its defense has been suspect.

The final No. 1 seed likely belongs to Kansas after Tennessee lost, 92-91, to Arkansas in the SEC semifinals.

Average at best

Next season, the Atlantic Coast Conference might want to consider going back to the old setup with the Big East or Pac-10 with their early season showdown rather than remaining partners with the Big Ten.

The ACC coaches, especially those whose teams didn't finish in the top three of the 12-team league, have lamented all season about how tough the venerable conference was from top to bottom. In reality, the bottom nine teams were equally mediocre.

Conference call

Maryland coach Gary Williams joked this season that Big East coaches - a fraternity he once belonged to - have been campaigning "since August" to get nine teams in the tournament. He also questioned how the ACC could get fewer teams than the Big Ten despite the ACC's dominance in their early season challenge.

When the dust settles, the Big East and Pac-10 likely will get seven teams each in the field, and the Big 12 and SEC six. The Big Ten will have at least four.

The ACC should get four - North Carolina, Duke, Clemson and Miami - and possibly a fifth in Virginia Tech, which was edged by North Carolina, 68-66, in the ACC tournament semifinals. Meanwhile, the West Coast Conference likely will have three teams with bids after San Diego upset Saint Mary's and Gongaza to win the league's tournament.

The new capital

While it still has some catching up to do with old-school basketball meccas such as Indianapolis, Los Angeles and that eight-mile stretch of strip malls and pine forests between Chapel Hill and Durham, N.C., there's a new kid at the NCAA tournament block party.

Hint: It's the same place that brought you Hairspray.

With UMBC earning its first bid yesterday in the America East, and with Coppin State emerging from last night's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference final with a 62-60 victory over Morgan State, it marks the first time that Baltimore will be represented by more than one local team.

If you take into account urban sprawl, add Mount St. Mary's to the local list. Though Baltimore and Washington want nothing to do with each other, the I-95 corridor between (and beyond) the two cities is chock-full of tournament teams, including George Mason, American and Georgetown.

don.markus@baltsun.com

Selection show

The NCAA men's basketball tournament selection show is today at 6 p.m. and can be seen on channels 13 and 9.

See The Sun tomorrow for the tournament bracket, regional capsules and coverage of the draws for the three state qualifers.

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