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USC, UCLA are dancing with the stars

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Louisville ended up as the top team in the field, Kentucky won’t sniff the bluegrass for the first time since 1991 and Arizona got up off the desert floor to extend its tournament streak to 25 consecutive years.

Northern Iowa, you’re in, but Florida, go take a seat next to Kentucky.

Deep breath . . .

UCLA, which has won 11 more national titles in basketball than USC, earned a higher seeding than the crosstown Trojans, No. 6 versus No. 10, but will get shipped, along with Josh Shipp, to Philadelphia on Thursday.

Smile and say “cheesesteak.”

USC, the football school, gets to touch down in Minneapolis and play Boston College on Friday.

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Seeded either first or second in the West each of the last three years, UCLA is going Horace Greeley in reverse to play Virginia Commonwealth, another way of saying, this is what you get when you don’t win the Pacific 10 Conference regular-season or tournament title.

The gravy train is now a transcontinental.

Giant-killer alert: Two years ago, VCU upset Duke in the first round in Buffalo, N.Y.

Duke was a No. 6 and, gulp, VCU was No. 11.

The VCU kid who killed Duke, a guard named Eric Maynor, is still the guard at VCU.

Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS jumped on this immediately and announced on VCU’s behalf, “I think they’re going to advance and pull off the upset.”

Other than that, Seth is with UCLA all the way to the Continental Divide.

Big inhale, then exhale . . .

St. Mary’s didn’t make it. That’s right, the Gaels, with a 25-6 record, are goners -- so what in the name of Jesus, Mary and Joseph happened?

The selection committee, in the end, wasn’t convinced star guard Patty Mills was sufficiently recovered from his broken hand. Mills was injured in January against Gonzaga and returned last week for the West Coast Conference tournament, only to make two of 16 shots against the Zags in a blowout loss in the title game.

Bottom line: Had Mills not been injured, St. Mary’s probably would have bumped a team off the bubble, maybe St. Maryland’s out of the Atlantic Coast.

“He obviously made a valiant effort to come back,” Mike Slive, chairman of the NCAA selection committee, said Sunday of Mills on a conference call.

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The committee had to make other tough calls on other bubble teams: Penn State, San Diego State, Creighton . . . you know who you are.

It doesn’t help when schools that may otherwise not earn at-large NCAA bids become must-takes by winning their conference tournaments.

Mississippi State mucked up the mud by winning the Southeastern, Temple by winning the Atlantic 10 and USC by winning the Pac-10.

That puts the squeeze on at-large teams waiting in line with a ticket.

“This is the most gut-wrenching moment of five long days,” Slive said of having to push at-large hopefuls off the plank. “Slots were taken as a result of tournaments.”

But Arizona, to the surprise of many, got into the field.

The Wildcats appeared doomed after USC won the Pac-10 tournament, but the committee ended up taking six teams from the conference.

“It’s good thing the committee took into account that the bottom of our conference is not a bottom,” USC Coach Tim Floyd remarked.

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Arizona finished 19-13 and stumbled home after losing five of its last six.

Arizona was only 2-9 on the road, had an Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) rating in the 60s, yet it was Slive’s three favorite words -- “body of work” -- that saved the Wildcats.

The committee, aware basketball has become a back-ended sport, is putting more emphasis on early-season games.

In December, Arizona beat Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State and later scored key conference wins against Washington, UCLA and USC.

“November and December, it’s not the exhibition season,” Slive said.

The field of 65 isn’t perfect -- it never is -- but it’s out.

You could grumble about Connecticut getting a top seeding over Memphis (which faces Cal State Northridge in the first round), but Slive said there was a sliver’s difference between many of the top teams on the first two lines.

Louisville had a racehorse finish in earning the top No. 1 spot, in the Midwest Region, winning the Big East regular season and tournament. The other top teams, in order of seeding, are Pittsburgh (East), North Carolina (South) and Connecticut (West). Connecticut won both of its national titles, in 1999 and 2004, out of the West.

What happened to trying to keep schools close to home, especially in these harsh economic times?

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Neither UCLA or USC landed a first-round game in Portland or Boise, but Mississippi State is headed to Oregon and Florida State is headed to Idaho.

Explanation: The selection committee’s top priority is to create a geographically competitive field. It protects the first four seeding lines, but everything after that usually involves a hub stop.

UCLA, at No. 6, and USC at No. 10, had no bracket protection.

“Two-thirds of teams that play basketball are east of the Mississippi,” Slive said. “So people are going to have to go west.

“Then we protect the first four lines. So those teams have earned the shot of staying as close to home as possible.”

To wit: Washington, the Pac-10 regular-season champion, is seeded fourth in the West and has earned an opening-round game in Portland.

Florida State, as a No. 5, with Miami hosting first-round games, just missed the cut.

“Some of the teams had to travel,” Slive said.

This wasn’t a great year for the little guy.

Thirty of the available 34 at-large picks were gobbled up by the six power conferences.

The Atlantic Coast, Big East and Big Ten all received seven bids. The Pac-10 and Big 12 will send six teams to the tournament, and the Southeastern Conference will forward three.

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In 2004, 12 schools from “mid-major” conferences crashed the 65-school field. You could argue more little-guy at-larges makes the tournament more compelling.

In 2006, George Mason took an at-large bid and raced all the way to the Final Four out of the Colonial Athletic Assn. -- but what fun was that?

Slive reiterated the committee pays no attention to conferences, not that anyone believes him.

“We just look at teams,” Slive said.

It’s time to print out your bracket and look at 65.

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chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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No. 2 Memphis vs. No. 15 CS Northridge

The Matadors understand what they’re up against in the bigger, athletic Tigers, but they also know they have already overcome adversity this season. C12

Men’s bracket...C9

West, Midwest breakdown...C10

East, South breakdown...C11

Women’s tournament...C8

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