Columbus will play host to a No. 1 seed and a No. 2 seed in this weekend’s NCAA Tournament, but the main attraction likely will be a No. 7 seed.
The Cincinnati Bearcats, who upset Houston to win the American Athletic Conference tournament title on Sunday, will play for the first time in Columbus since a loss to Illinois in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. UC will play Iowa, a No. 10 seed, at 12:15 p.m. Friday in a South Regional game at Nationwide Arena.
On Sunday, the winner of the Cincinnati-Iowa game will play the winner of second-seeded Tennessee vs. 15th-seeded Colgate. The other matchups on Friday are No. 1 seed North Carolina vs. No. 16 seed Iona and eighth seed Utah State vs. ninth seed Washington in the Midwest Regional.
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Cincinnati (28-6) has made the NCAA Tournament nine straight years but hasn’t advanced past the first weekend since 2012. This was expected to be a rebuilding year for coach Mick Cronin, but the Bearcats exceeded expectations.
After beating Houston (31-3) on Sunday, Cincinnati hoped for a higher seed than it got. But at least the Bearcats can stay close to home, even if they might need directions to Columbus given how rarely they’ve played here.
The Bearcats and Ohio State have played only three times — none in Columbus — since UC upset the Buckeyes in the 1962 national championship game. They had a December 2006 matchup in Indianapolis and then played in Boston during the 2012 NCAA Tournament, a Buckeyes win.
Other than that, the teams didn’t play until the thaw was broken with a home-and-home series that began this season in Cincinnati. The teams will play at Value City Arena next season.
As a Big Ten team, Iowa has more familiarity with Columbus, though the Hawkeyes’ last visit in February did not end well. Coach Fran McCaffrey was so incensed with the officiating after a lopsided loss that he screamed expletives at the refs. That earned him a suspension.
In an interview with Iowa beat reporters Sunday night, McCaffrey said he wasn’t overly concerned about playing Cincinnati in Ohio.
“I don’t think it’s that much different (than a more neutral site) — maybe a few more fans of theirs there,” he said. “But they’re tough no matter where you play them.”
Cincinnati does pride itself, as always, on its defensive toughness. The Bearcats rank 28th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency in the kenpom.com rankings. Their victory Sunday might have been their most impressive of the season, not that Cronin is dwelling on it.
“We have to be unsatisfied,” he said. “We’ve got to put this to bed. We’ll have a team dinner tomorrow night and we’ve got to make a pact. We’ve got to be hungry. We’ve got to be the hardest team to beat in the NCAA Tournament.”
North Carolina (27-6) is a No. 1 seed for the 17th time. No other program has been a top seed more than 14 times. The Tar Heels are deep and athletic, with three players averaging more than 14 points per game.
North Carolina will play Iona, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion. The Gaels (17-15) rebounded from a 2-9 start and won their last 10 games.
The Utah State-Washington game should be intriguing. Utah State (28-6) won the Mountain West championship and features guard Sam Merrill, who averages 21 points per game.
Washington (26-8) won the regular-season title by three games in an unusually weak Pac-12 before losing by 20 in the conference tournament to Oregon. The Huskies are led by conference player of the year Jaylen Nowell, who averages 16 points a game.
Tennessee (29-5) was in line for a No. 1 seed after beating Kentucky on Saturday but lost to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference tournament final on Sunday. Grant Williams (19 ppg) is the leading scorer for the Volunteers, coached by Rick Barnes.
Colgate (24-10) won the Patriot League. The Raiders will make their first NCAA appearance since 1996. They’ll be prohibitive underdogs against Tennessee, but they have won 11 straight and shoot well from three-point range.