Unless you've been living in a bubble—as opposed to on the bubble—the last few months, you know about the changes to the format of the men's tournament this year. There's more of it: With the field expanded to 68 teams, there will be four play-in games, which will now be referred to as the first round, on March 15 and 16 in Dayton. (Two games will consist of the four weakest teams playing for a couple of 16th seeds; the other two will pit against one another the last four of the 37 at-large qualifiers, with 11th and 12th seeds on the line.) And you can see more of it: For the first time all games will be broadcast in their entirety on one of four channels, CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV (page 52).
But one feature of the tournament is eternal: Seniors get their last shot at collegiate glory. This year's field is loaded with tandems and trios—even a nonet!—of seniors with unfinished business. Take Ohio State, the field's top seed. Sure, Big Ten freshman of the year Jared Sullinger has grabbed most of the headlines, but the Buckeyes' driving force over the next three weeks will be their three seniors—David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. Lighty, a fifth-year swingman whom coach Thad Matta calls "the best defender in college basketball," played in the 2007 title game, when the Greg Oden--led team lost to Florida 84--75. Since then OSU's postseasons (NIT, first round, Sweet 16) have been "a roller coaster," says Lighty. "I was spoiled getting to the national championship as a freshman. Hopefully we can end it that way too, only winning it this time."
Back in the fall Purdue seemed doomed to continue its recent run of March vexation. When senior Robbie Hummel reinjured his ACL on Oct. 16, media and fans couldn't get off the Final Four bandwagon fast enough. (Foxsports.com dropped the Boilermakers all the way to No. 25 from No. 2 in its preseason rankings.) But remaining seniors JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore—and a blossoming supporting cast—answered with a 25--7 season and a No. 3 seed. "We can definitely make the Final Four," says the 6'10" Johnson, the Big Ten player of the year. "We have all the pieces."
And there is Villanova, which has gone so cold it has made history: After a 16--1 start the injury-plagued Wildcats will be the first team since the field expanded to 64 in 1985 to enter on a five-game losing streak. Can seniors Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena, who made the Final Four in 2009, recover their early-season mojo? Georgetown will get a boost with the return of senior point guard Chris Wright, who has watched his team lose four straight since he fractured his left hand on Feb. 23. Can he team with fellow seniors Austin Freeman and Julian Vaughn to make their first Sweet 16?
Lighty thinks these seniors have the same motivation, including the nine on St. John's, who have never been to the Big Dance. "It's the last chance to put on the school jersey," he says. "Everyone wants to make the most of that."
For Luke Winn's up-to-the-minute coverage of the NCAAs, go to SI.com/tourneyblog