College basketball was characterized by turmoil at the top all season. The No. 1 spot in The Associated Press poll changed hands six times, one short of the record set in 1982-83, making the Big Dance picture as muddled as that of the presidential campaign. Twenty top seeds in conference tournaments did not win those titles.
Fitting, then, that Selection Sunday brought more ambiguity. The NCAA Tournament could be one of the most unpredictable ever. Bracket busters abound, which will make 40 million American bettors ecstatic as they ponder picks culminating in the April 2-4 Final Four in Houston.
The NCAA selection committee’s choices certainly put the mad in March Madness. Big Ten champion Michigan State, which seemed to be a lock for a No. 1 seed, was leapfrogged by Virginia, which lost the ACC tournament final to North Carolina.
“No. 2 overall strength of schedule and No. 3 RPI and a close game in the ACC tournament final,” committee chairman Joe Castiglione said on the CBS Selection Show in justifying Virginia’s seeding. “Even the loss in the tournament championship didn’t change the committee’s minds.”
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Oregon, from a relatively weak Pac-12, nabbed the No. 1 seed in the West, which gave Michigan State another reason to complain.
Kansas, the overall No. 1 and the only school to reach No. 1 for a second time this season, earned the top seed in the South. The Jayhawks, led by Perry Ellis, might not be loaded with NBA prospects, but they have the best chemistry and went 30-4 in the best league, the Big 12. North Carolina, packed with inconsistent talent, is No. 1 in the East and will play either Florida Gulf Coast or Fairleigh Dickinson in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The University of Miami has a realistic shot at the Final Four with its senior-laden roster and got the No. 3 seed it expected, which sends the Hurricanes to Providence, Rhode Island, to play No. 14 seed Buffalo.
It has been 10 years since UM coach Jim Larrañaga led George Mason to the 2006 Final Four, arguably the most improbable run in the sport’s history. His 11th-seeded team beat Michigan State, defending champ North Carolina, Wichita State and top-seeded Connecticut along the way. It has been eight years since Steph Curry led Davidson to the Elite Eight.
It’s especially tempting to embrace the Cinderella storyline this year. No team has dominated the way Kentucky did last year. No team held the No. 1 ranking for at least five consecutive weeks for the first time since the poll began. Five No. 1 teams fell before February started for the first time since 1949. When Villanova ascended to No. 1 for the first time, five other teams received first-place votes.
Could 2016 join 2013 and 1986 as the “most upsetting” tournaments — both won by Louisville? Could we see another Final Four like that of 2011, when Virginia Commonwealth and Butler made it magical?
Don’t count on it. Cinderella is a fairytale. Nineteen of 31 champs since 1985 have been No. 1 seeds. In 124 meetings between No. 1 and No. 16 seeds, the No. 1s are 124-0. No. 2 seeds are 117-7 vs. No. 15 seeds and No. 3 seeds are 104-20 vs. No. 14 seeds.
And for those who think the chances of picking a perfect bracket increase in a wild and crazy year, the odds are still 9.2 quintillion to one (that’s 18 zeroes), the same odds as being hit by a meteorite.
But Louisville coach Rick Pitino, watching from the outside as his team is on self-imposed probation, predicted a plethora of upsets for the 10, 11 and 12 seeds.
Sleepers to consider include Cal-Berkeley, a young team with two NBA lottery picks, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Maryland Connecticut and St. Joseph’s.
Monmouth would have been fun to watch, as well as South Carolina and St. Bonaventure, but they were undeservedly bumped by Vanderbilt, Michigan and Tulsa.
“When a lot of No. 1 seeds lost, the bubble got squeezed and that hurt,” Castiglione said of the bubble choices.
Don’t bet big on shallow Duke. Oklahoma and Buddy Hield need to turn it up on defense. Michigan State and Denzel Valentine will have something to prove. Xavier’s zone defense can confound. Don’t forget Kentucky, which has the essential ingredient in the NCAA Tournament, a great point guard in Tyler Ulis.
North Carolina and Kansas are the teams to beat. UNC began the regular season No. 1 and KU ended it on top. These traditional powers add a semblance of sanity to an up-for-grabs bracket.
But madness is much more fun.