Nobody likes a bully, so this year the NCAA brings you its annual men’s college basketball tournament without a designated intimidator in the room.
No team close to being undefeated, none teeming with future top-10 NBA draft picks and ready to sneer its way to the Final Four. Not one team that thinks bullets bounce off its chest.
To be sure, there are plenty of very good teams, just none anointed for greatness like unbeaten Kentucky was last season when the brackets were announced.
The top seeds this year went to the familiar — Kansas (South), North Carolina (East) — and those of at least a mildly surprising nature — Virginia (Midwest), Oregon (West). There were the required controversies — Michigan State was thought to be a lock for a No.1 seed by most bracket prognosticators — and cries into the night over schools left out.
But nowhere in a single bracket is that one team intimidating all below. Parity has been college basketball’s refrain this season and it could make for one of its most interesting tournaments. Six different teams have been ranked No. 1 this season. Top-10 teams suffered 74 losses during the season, the most since the Associated Press launched its top 25 poll in 1948. Every team is free to dream big.
Jay Rood, the vice president of the race and sports books for MGM Resorts, sets the betting line on the tournament there and is pressed to remember a field this wide open.
“The last few years, there’s been at least one, possibly two or three pretty elite teams that factored in for being in the Final Four,” Rood said. “But I think you could make a case for easily 12 teams this year and possibly more.”
This year the monster freshman class never materialized. Ben Simmons may be the best freshman in the country, but his Louisiana State team failed to even make the tournament. Kentucky’s annual restocking of phenoms failed to deliver its typical weekly beatings. The Wildcats (26-8) open as the No. 4 seed in the East.
Virginia fell in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final to North Carolina on Saturday, but still earned a No. 1 seeding ahead of Michigan State, which won the Big Ten tournament Sunday. That may not prove much of a slight, however, since the Spartans were seeded second in the same Midwest Regional with Virginia. Going into Sunday, Rood had Michigan State listed as his tournament favorite.
The suspense over who was in and where they were seeded was oddly muted when a filled-out bracket was posted on Twitter during the CBS selection show. An hour later, the bracket was proved to be 100% correct.
Of the six teams to be ranked No. 1 this season, only Kansas and North Carolina earned a No. 1 seeding. The others: Villanova is second in the South region, Oklahoma is No. 2 in the West, Michigan State No. 2 in the Midwest and Kentucky No. 4 in the East.
Last year’s champion, perennial power Duke, at one point actually fell out of the top 25 for the first time in a decade. The Blue Devils ended up 23-10 and nabbed a No. 4 seed in the West with a first-round matchup against North Carolina Wilmington, 153 miles south of Duke.
Three of the Pac-12 teams are jammed in the South with No. 1 Kansas. Colorado has a tough first-round game with No. 9 Connecticut. If they survive that, the Buffaloes get Kansas. California is seeded No. 4 and opens with Big West champion Hawaii. Arizona is No. 6 and gets the winner of the Vanderbilt-Wichita State play-in game.
Should USC get past a strong Providence team, it would likely meet the East’s top seed, North Carolina. Not that Trojans Coach Andy Enfield’s impact will be felt only there. He came to the attention of USC when he led Florida Gulf Coast, a No. 15 seed, to a pair of tournament wins in 2013. Dunk City was all the rage. It’s back this year — with a stingy defense as its calling card — in a play-in game against Fairleigh Dickinson, the winner taking on North Carolina. So if Florida Gulf Coast wins and then pulls off the first No. 16 victory over a No. 1 seed, Enfield could meet his former school in the second round.
Remember when Monmouth was everyone’s early-season darling after upsets of UCLA, USC, Notre Dame and Georgetown? Monmouth finished 27-7 and won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular-season title, but lost in the tournament final to Iona and was left out.
Other mid-majors also took hits. St. Mary’s won the West Coast Conference regular-season championship and finished 26-7, but lost the tournament final and automatic qualification to Gonzaga. The Gaels were No. 28 in the last AP poll, the highest-ranked team to miss the tournament. St. Bonaventure finished 22-8 and also missed the golden ticket.
There’s being upset, and then there are upsets. Upsets have been the fashion this season in college basketball, and without a truly elite team in attendance, the tournament could provide an enduring signature to its curious season.