NCAA Tournament

NCAA Tournament will bring sanity to wild basketball season

EAST REGION: Brice Johnson helps cut down the nets after leading North Carolina to the ACC tournament title.
EAST REGION: Brice Johnson helps cut down the nets after leading North Carolina to the ACC tournament title. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The numbers aren’t the mystery.

There are 68 teams, 9.2 quintillion possible bracket permutations, four top seeds and only one national champion.

But the puzzle lies in connecting the dots.

And over the next three weeks, it’ll be up to March Madness to bring some sanity to a topsy-turvy college basketball season that’s lacked clarity and failed to provide a clear-cut favorite to cut down the nets in Houston on April 4.

Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon and Virginia received No. 1 seeds when pairings were announced Sunday for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and history tells us they will not lose their first-round games.

No 16th seed has ever defeated a No. 1.

After that, though, it becomes hazy, and that’s because this past season has been one big head-scratcher.

 

Twenty-four teams found their way into the top 10 rankings during the course of the season. But only two of them — Kansas and Oklahoma — remained there for the duration. And those top 10 teams didn’t exactly overwhelm, setting an all-time record by combining to lose 74 games.

Now it all gets settled, with the usual mishmash of blue-blood programs (North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas, etc.) taking on relative pipsqueaks (Stony Brook, Hampton, Stephen F. Austin, Fairleigh Dickinson, etc.), which makes the NCAA Tournament unique from all other sports championships.

Get ready for Cinderellas being outfitted for glass slippers after knocking off college hoops giants, because there’s always at least one mammoth upset that busts the bracket.

It all begins Tuesday with the first of four play-in games involving eight schools with shaky credentials. One of those, Holy Cross, doesn’t have a prayer’s chance of winning the national title. The Crusaders bring the only losing record (14-19) into the tourney.

Beginning Thursday, it all turns serious when 32 teams are eliminated from the original field within a span of 48 hours.

The drama actually started Sunday when the field was announced and bubble teams such as Monmouth, Valparaiso, South Carolina, St. Bonaventure and St. Mary’s found out they would be staying home. Those teams failed to win their conference tournaments, leaving it up to the selection committee to decide their fates.

“I think any of the teams that didn’t get in — we all understood what good years they had,” said NCAA Tournament committee chairman Joe Castiglione after the pairings were announced. “When a lot of those No. 1 teams lose, we had to leave them out, and the bubble got smaller.”

The bubble started out larger as the result of two would-be tournament contenders — SMU and Louisville — sitting out either because of NCAA bans or self-imposed sanctions.

That opened the gate for a couple of suspect tournament entries — most notably Tulsa and Wichita State — breaking into the picture.

As usual, the pairings created some intrigue.

Kentucky could be playing traditional rival Indiana in the second round of the tournament. Another second-round showdown involving two hated rivals could be shaping up between Texas and Texas A&M.

Only two teams from Florida made it into the tournament: Miami and Florida Gulf Coast, which was a Cinderella itself when it reached the Sweet 16 in 2013.

Feel-good stories involve Yale, which is playing in the tournament for the first time since 1962, and Stony Brook, which is playing in its first tournament ever.

Still, despite all the gooey warmth the small schools bring, it’s usually the major powers that prevail in the end.

Looking for hot teams?

Oregon enters the tournament on an eight-game winning streak, capped off by victories in the Pac 12 tournament over ranked opponents Arizona and Utah.

“Don’t sleep on Oregon,” cautioned CBS Selection Show analyst Charles Barkley.

The Jayhawks (30-4) are not only riding a 14-game winning streak but emerged atop the pack in the difficult Big 12 Conference. Of the Jayhawks’ four losses, three were to ranked opponents. Then again, their worst defeat came at the hands of unranked Oklahoma State.

Seton Hall won the Big East tournament with victories over Xavier and Villanova.

The ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences are sending seven teams each to the tournament.

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