Expect to throw brackets in trash during tourney
The fairy tale version of this March Madness probably ends with Houston, the No. 1-ranked team for much of this season, cutting down nets in its home city with alum Jim Nantz calling his last Final Four on the 40th anniversary of Phi Slama Jama losing the NCAA Tournament final to North Carolina State.
Or perhaps it ends with Texas interim coach Rodney Terry delivering the Longhorns their first-ever national title, improbably proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s the man for the job by saving the season after former coach Chris Beard was fired due to an embarrassing domestic dispute in December.
Or maybe to make the story even better, it’s Marquette beating Texas, pitting coach Shaka Smart against the program he had to escape after arriving with so much hype in 2015 and delivering a string of disappointing seasons.
Then again, it could end with Purdue joining the first-time champions club and making its first Final Four since 1980 with 7-foot-4 Zach Edey bringing big man basketball to the masses. Or, in a year where the spotlight has been elsewhere, why not Gonzaga finally winning the whole thing in a year where the Bulldogs were written off early as title contenders?
Of course, the reality of the NCAA Tournament is that unpredictability and randomness usually trumps a perfect script. And this year in particular, we should all spend the next three weeks embracing the idea that our picks are useless and our brackets will likely need to be thrown in the trash.
NCAA Tournament could be wide open
Buckle up, America. On paper, this has the potential to be one of the craziest tournaments we’ve ever seen.
Why? Maybe because this has not been a dominant year for the big, traditional brands. Instead, we’ve seen Houston cruise through the American Athletic Conference while barely getting a worthy test from anyone besides Memphis. We’ve seen football schools Alabama and Texas A&M dominate the SEC while Kentucky comes into the tournament looking like an underachiever. We’ve seen Miami, a team built on veterans and transfers, rise to the top of the ACC while Duke went way under the radar most of the year and North Carolina missed the tournament entirely. And the Big Ten almost felt like a random results generator at times with nine teams finishing within two games of each other in the standings behind Purdue, which ran off with the conference title.
The entire point of the NCAA Tournament is reminding us how little we know about what’s going to happen, and often how irrelevant regular season results are in a single-elimination event played on neutral courts. That happens even when we go into the tournament with a few dominant teams who look clearly better than the rest.
Even top teams come with concerns
But this year? Even the supposedly dominant teams come in with question marks.
The analytics show that Houston is the best and most complete team in college basketball, but the lack of elite 3point shooting can lead their offense into the mud.
Kansas had a nation-best 17 Quadrant 1 wins this year, but they come into the tournament with two losses to Texas over the last week while there were questions about whether coach Bill Self would be on the sidelines after spending time in the hospital this past week.
Alabama passed the eye test in a major way at the SEC Tournament, but its offense can go sideways when the 3pointers aren’t falling and the Crimson Tide rely heavily on two freshmen in Brandon Miller and Noah Clowney, who have never been in this position before.
UCLA may have had the best combination of experience and high-level talent, but the Bruins aren’t the same team without their best perimeter defender in Jaylen Clark, who suffered a late-season Achilles injury.
Purdue started 22-1 but a pretty mediocre February combined with some previous March flameouts under Matt Painter make the Boilermakers a difficult team to trust.
Meanwhile, the first four seed lines on the bracket feature a bunch of teams that are either good on defense and bad on offense (Tennessee, Virginia, Kansas State, Iowa State) or bad on defense and good on offense (Gonzaga, Arizona, Baylor, Marquette).
Of course, that’s the beauty of the tournament to begin with: None of us know which of those data points are going to matter or which teams are going to outperform or underperform what they’ve been all season in the only 40minute sample size that matters.
Blueblood drop-off adds to parity
Without a season being framed by the usual bluebloods, we’re left with even more perceived parity than normal. Will it turn out that way when the games begin Thursday? Who knows.
Maybe at the end, we’ll realize that, indeed, the No. 1 seeds like Houston, Purdue and Alabama were actually the best teams all along. But the tournament never fails to show us how hilariously wrong our brackets are, which is even more likely to be the case this year.
One way or another, the chaos is coming. In the end, it’s usually more fun than the fairy tale anyway.