- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Even the chairman of the tight-lipped NCAA selection committee can’t deny this simple fact: Heading into this week’s conference tournaments, there’s Kentucky and Syracuse, and then everybody else.

In a teleconference to preview Sunday’s release of the NCAA tournament pairings, committee chairman Jeff Hathaway all but handed two of the four top seeds to the Wildcats and Orange, each of whom entered their conference tournaments with a record of 30-1.

“I think we all agree that if the season ended today, we know who the two best teams are,” he said Wednesday. “If you’re looking at 3 and 4 on the first line and the entire second line, we have the same handful of teams in mind but where they would be laced will be a tremendous debate.”

Though Hathaway, the former athletic director at defending national champion Connecticut, did not delve into specifics, among those lumped into consideration for the other top seeds are Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State.

The brackets come out Sunday evening, with the tournament starting Tuesday.

When Hathaway was pressed about his Kentucky-Syracuse statement, he tried to back off.

“I don’t want to say anyone should feel secure,” he said. “If I did, those two coaches would get after me and say we took away some motivation.”

He said injuries or a suspension, each of which the committee considers when making up the bracket, could change the picture.

“The bottom line is, everyone today knows that if the season ended, we would say those two teams are the best in the country,” Hathaway said.

He indicated the Big Ten, widely perceived as the strongest conference top to bottom this season, would not receive special consideration for a top seed.

“The fact of the matter is, conference RPI and conference rankings are not brought up in the rating room at all,” Hathaway said, speaking to a change the selection committee made in the time since he joined five years ago.

He said the knee injury to freshman Branden Dawson of Michigan State, denying the Spartans of an eight-point, four-rebound player as they head into the postseason, could play into their seeding.

“The … great thing about this situation is, we’re going to have the ability to see Michigan State play without him” in the Big Ten tournament, Hathaway said.

Hathaway said committee members have been instructed to look at teams on their own merits, without lumping them into the usual categories mid-majors vs. BCS or `power’-conference teams.

The number of mid-majors that earn at-large bids is always widely scrutinized. Last year, there were seven - one fewer than in 2010, but three more than in 2009 - and VCU made the Final Four. Meanwhile, mid-major Butler has been in the last two finals, though the Bulldogs struggled this year and aren’t expected to make the tournament. -