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Smaller conferences starting to shine heading into NCAA tourney

Gonzagplayers from left KevPangos (4) Gary Bell Jr. (5) Kelly Olynyk (13) Elias Harris (20) react as they come off

Gonzaga players from left, Kevin Pangos (4), Gary Bell Jr. (5), Kelly Olynyk (13) and Elias Harris (20) react as they come off the court near the end of the game against Saint Mary's during the West Coast Conference tournament championship NCAA college basketball game, Monday, March 11, 2013, in Las Vegas. Gonzaga won 65-51. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

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Updated: March 21, 2013 8:34AM

Three of the names at the top of this year’s NCAA bracket are as rich in tradition as the tournament itself.

Louisville, the overall top seed, has made nine Final Four trips. Kansas (14) and Indiana (8) also are regulars. They have combined for 10 national championships.

But the sign of the times might be the fourth No. 1 seed. While Gonzaga is still trying to knock down the Final Four door, it at least has cracked the stranglehold the six power conferences tend to have on the NCAA tournament.

This year’s bracket shows that the Big Dance is no longer the exclusive domain of BCS schools.

The Big East, with eight bids, and the Big Ten, with seven, lead this year’s field of 68. That includes our two local representatives, Illinois and Notre Dame, which received No. 7 seeds.

The Illini will open against No.  10 Colorado on Friday in Austin, Texas. The winner of that game is likely to play Miami, the No. 2 seed in the East Region.

The Irish will play No. 10 Iowa State on Friday in Dayton, Ohio, with the winner expected to play Ohio State, No. 2 in the West.

A contender for overall No.  1, Indiana dropped out of that hunt. It will open in Dayton but would play in Washington, D.C., if it reaches the Sweet 16 — not the Indianapolis slot it coveted.

No. 3 Michigan State and No.  4 Michigan both will start in Auburn Hills, Mich., outside Detroit. Ohio State will open in Dayton but is in the West Region (anchored by Gonzaga) that will play its Sweet  16 in Los Angeles.

But the story going into this tournament is how smaller conferences that are often disappointed on Selection Sunday had plenty to celebrate this time.

Led by No. 3 seed New Mexico, the Mountain West received five bids. The Atlantic 10 also is sending five teams, including two, Butler and VCU, that are known for March hijinks.

Compare that with the storied Atlantic Coast Conference, which received four bids, and the Southeastern Conference, which received only three.

The Big West (Gonzaga, St. Mary’s), Missouri Valley (Creighton, Wichita State) and Sun Belt (Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State) earned two bids.

Six teams were under consideration for No. 1 seeds, said Mike Bobinski, chairman of the selection committee.

‘‘Miami had a great year,’’ Bobinski said. ‘‘We only had four slots. If we’d had five, Miami would have been there. In the final analysis, we put Gonzaga just ahead of them. For years, Gonzaga has done a lot of aggressive [scheduling] things to give us evidence of who they are, and they did that again this year. In our judgment, that’s a very complete and very strong team.’’

Middle Tennessee, which will square off Tuesday with St. Mary’s in a matchup for a No. 11 seed, was a closely scrutinized bubble team. Aggressive and successful scheduling also helped the Blue Raiders.

‘‘The difference between Middle Tennessee and some other teams was their ability to win on the road against quality teams,’’ Bobinski said.

Now that they’re in, the challenge for the rewarded smaller schools will be to try to advance — same as it is for bigger schools.

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