The first sign that this year's NCAA selection committee didn't lack for confidence came even before the brackets were announced.
Some 90 minutes before revealing the rest of the field, it told Coppin State and Mount St. Mary to head to Dayton, Ohio, for what the NCAA insists on calling the ``opening-round'' game, and the rest of us still stubbornly refer to as the ``play-in'' game.
Chairman Tom O'Connor explained that once committee members were comfortable with their choices, ``we committed to releasing the information so the two teams can begin their travel plans and scouting that much sooner.''
From the look and sound of things, the committee didn't struggle much more filling out the remainder of its bracket and got most of that right, too.
a championship parade. But more on that in a moment.
First, though, give the committee its due. In contrast to previous years, there was so little complaining about either the top seeds or the last few teams let in that O'Connor may pick up the phone for a conference call - read: gripe session - scheduled for Monday afternoon and find out there's nobody on the other end.
Arizona State coach Herb Sendek might be tempted to dial in, since his team beat Arizona in the Pac-10 conference race and twice in head-to-head matchups on the court, but somehow still lost the competition inside the Indianapolis hotel room where the committee met.
``We've been involved in situations before today that were very difficult to swallow,'' Sendek said Sunday. ``Today's like the final big gulp.''
A few other possible gripes: Duke got an easy ride to the Elite Eight and its No. 2 seed was probably a gift, especially after Wisconsin had to settle for a No. 3 despite winning the Big Ten's regular-season and conference tournament titles. The Big East somehow got twice as many teams in as the Atlantic Coast Conference, eight to four, And maybe the last No. 1 slot that went to Kansas should have gone to Tennessee, which now finds itself in the East bracket with overall top seed North Carolina.
``We're disappointed by being on the No. 2 line because of the body of work,'' Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said. ``But I'll tell you what - it's really not a different road going to the Final Four.''
O'Connor said much the same thing.
``The first eight teams in the country were really strong teams, and we looked at them as teams that could win the national championship. We're projecting and seeing any of them going to the Final Four,'' he said. ``We tried to balance the top four lines in each region, and it made geographic sense to have Tennessee in Charlotte.''
However, that same ``geographic sense'' should be the reason North Carolina prevails in the East bracket. The Tar Heels have the toughest opposition - besides Tennessee, there's Louisville and Washington State - but they're 5-1 playing in nearby Raleigh, N.C. site of their first round game, and 7-0 in Charlotte, N.C. where the regional final will be played.
Ditto for UCLA. The Bruins open just down the interstate in Anaheim, Calif., made the Final Four the past two years without ever leaving the state of California for the regionals, and figures to do so again.
Kansas, likewise, won't have to go far for its first game in Omaha and then, closely tracing another of the Jayhawks' steps on the road to their 1988 national championship, the regional final would bring them to Detroit.
``We actually told our team about that today,'' coach Bill Self said.
Memphis, the final No. 1 seed, opens in Little Rock Ark.. but the guess here is that the Tigers, unbeaten and top-ranked for much of the regular season, won't even make it to the regional final after consecutive Elite Eight appearances. Their spot will be claimed by fourth-seeded Pittsburgh, which is too physical for Memphis and happens to be peaking at the right time.
That means three No. 1s in the Final Four, something that last happened in 1993.
UCLA guard Darren Collison will prove too experienced for Pitt's defense, and assuming both Kevin Love, the Bruins sensational freshman and Pac-10 player of the year, and forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are healthy, the Panthers run ends right there.
North Carolina beat Kansas en route to a title in 1993, but the recent history between the two schools is way more interesting. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams left Lawrence for Chapel Hill in 2003 - T-shirts reading ``Benedict Williams'' sold like hotcakes at the time - and was replaced soon after by Self.
But this one will play out on the floor instead of store shelves and Kansas' stars, balance and depth will be the deciding factor. The Jayhawks are tough to match up with on either end of the court and they're deep enough that seven different players have topped the scoring and rebounding lines during the season.
That balance is also why Self, after taking three different teams to the Elite Eight four times - Tulsa (2000), Illinois (2001), and Kansas twice (2004 and 2007) - will beat UCLA and finally take home the piece of hardware that will validate all the others in his trophy case.
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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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