The favorite: Louisville (28-5) -- The Cardinals earned the overall top seeding in the tournament by winning both the regular-season and tournament championships in the Big East, which is widely considered the nation’s most competitive basketball conference.
Cinderella search: USC (21-12) -- The Trojans showed in winning the Pacific 10 Conference tournament title that they are plenty good when it comes to single-elimination situations. Forward Taj Gibson gives USC a gritty and athletic inside presence, and Daniel Hackett is a stopper on defense. The key: freshman DeMar DeRozan.
Cleveland State (25-10) -- The Vikings crashed the Sweet 16 in 1986 by beating Indiana. But it was a quick crash after that: A year later, the school was sanctioned by the NCAA for major recruiting violations. Then in 1990, three days after he signed a contract extension, former coach Kevin Mackey was arrested outside a crack house and was subsequently fired. Current Coach Gary Waters went 10-21 in his first season, 21-13 in his second, and even better this season.
Must see: No. 8 Ohio State (22-10) vs. No. 9 Siena (26-7) -- The Buckeyes get a tougher-than-you-might think draw here. Siena, champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, won a tournament game last season and gets good guard play from junior Ronald Moore (6.3 apg), Kenny Hasbrouck (14.8 ppg) and swingman Edwin Ubiles (14.6 ppg).
No. 2 Michigan State (26-6) vs. No. 3 Kansas (25-7) -- This potential quarterfinal matchup would be a rematch of a January game won by Michigan State, 75-62, in East Lansing. Kansas, the defending national champion, is 14-3 since. This is the second No. 2 seeding for Michigan State; they won the national title as No. 2 in 1979, with Magic Johnson leading the way.
Must skip: No. 1 Louisville vs. either No. 16 Alabama State or Morehead State -- Make an all-star team between Alabama State and Morehead State and Louisville still wins going away. No top-seeded team has never lost to a No. 16, and this definitely won’t be the first.
On the outside: Ben Woodside of North Dakota State is the highest-scoring player in the tournament, ranking ninth among major-college players with an average of 22.8 points along with 6.3 assists.
Michigan State guards Travis Walton and Kalin Lucas give the Spartans one of the best ball-handling tandems in the tournament. Walton has 99 assists and only 40 turnovers. Lucas has 138 assists and 61 turnovers.
Other guards who can fill it up: Jeff Teague of Wake Forest averages 19.4 points and Ohio State sophomore Jon Diebler has 94 three-pointers and is shooting 42.7% from beyond the arc.
On the inside: Louisville forward Terrence Williams does a little bit of everything. He is among NCAA leaders with 162 assists and only 75 turnovers, and also with an average of 2.3 steals. Plus, he’s second on the team in scoring (12.4) and rebounding (8.5).
Luke Nevill, Utah’s 7-2 senior center, has 85 blocks, averages 8.7 rebounds and shoots 60.5%. Cole Aldrich, Kansas’ 6-11 sophomore center, has 78 blocks, averages 10.6 rebounds and shoots 60.1%.
And then there’s Alabama State’s shot-blocking (78) 7-foot center, Chief Kickingstallionsims, who has the most memorable name in the tournament.
Arizona made the NCAA tournament for the 25th year in a row, and interim Coach Russ Pennell didn’t even try to hide his surprise. “We had just finished practice and catered a meal for the players,” he said. “I was looking down, then the players just went crazy . . . The celebration must have lasted five minutes. I hugged the same guy five times.”
North Dakota State is the first team since 1972 going to the tournament in its first season of eligibility. A top-of-the-key jump shot by Woodside with three seconds remaining beat Oakland (Mich.), 66-64, in the Summit League tournament championship game.
Steve Peterson, a Morehead State freshman, made one basket in the Ohio Valley title game against Austin Peay -- a baseline jump shot with 1.4 seconds left in the second overtime to put the Eagles in the tournament.
1. Louisville (28-5)
2. Michigan State (26-6)
3. Kansas (25-7)
4. Wake Forest (24-6)