Grab your bracket and pull up a chair. And bring darts, if you have any handy, because that’s the best method for picking winners in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year.
Oh, we could bore you with a detailed breakdown of RPI rankings or strength-of-schedule comparisons. But that seems like a waste of time, judging by the topsy-turvy nature of this college basketball season.
Wichita State went undefeated, Virginia won both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and Nebraska became a basketball school.
This isn’t just any old March Madness.
The Atlantic 10 earned the same numbers of berths (six) as the Big Ten and ACC. Kentucky, ranked No. 1 in the preseason amid unbridled hoopla over its freshman class, finished unranked and earned a No. 8 seed. And Michigan State will be a trendy Final Four pick as a No. 4 seed.
Need a road map to guide your picks? Find a cool mascot. Odds are that team probably has a fighting chance to advance to the Sweet 16.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that a dozen teams have a realistic shot to advance to the Final Four. Florida and Arizona will enter as favorites to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, perhaps only because somebody has to fill those shoes.
This is going to be fun.
“We say this every year, so maybe there’s more and more parity in college basketball every year,” said Ron Wellman, chairman of the tournament selection committee. “This year is unlike any of the five years that I have seen (as a committee member). I think that’s good for college basketball that we have the parity that we do and should produce a great NCAA basketball tournament.”
That parity has redefined what constitutes an upset, which has long been the hallmark of the tournament. Two factors have conspired to gradually erode the divide between traditional power schools and everyone else. The one-and-done exodus of players to the NBA has forced elite programs to reconfigure themselves annually while other programs can thrive on continuity and experience.
The growth of AAU and travel basketball at youth levels also has leveled the field and dispelled the notion that certain teams and conferences belong in a midmajor box, because there simply are more high-quality players in college basketball these days.
This tournament likely will provide further proof that the field is wide open. Here’s why:
Florida earned the No. 1 overall seed after winning its 26th consecutive game in the SEC championship game. The Gators flattened the SEC like a road grader and have one of the sharpest minds in college basketball in Billy Donovan. But …
Arizona owns one of the best lock-down defenses in college basketball, which means the Wildcats can advance even if their offense falters. But …
How do you pick against a team that hasn’t lost all season? Wichita State cleverly managed to turn an undefeated record into an underdog mantra after outsiders poked holes in its weak schedule. The Shockers made the Final Four last year so their success is not exactly a revelation. But …
Watch out for Virginia. No, that’s not a sentence ripped right from the 1981 sports pages. The Cavaliers didn’t pull off the ACC double — regular-season and tournament champions — merely by accident. The Wahoos are legit. But …
Michigan State is a team nobody wants to play right now. The Spartans got hit particularly hard by the injury bug this season and lost six Big Ten games. They’re finally healthy and looked like a typical Tom Izzo team in winning the Big Ten tournament.
The Big Ten, as a whole, reflects the unpredictable nature of this tournament. Michigan won the regular-season title but lost its shot at a No. 1 seed after losing to the Spartans on Sunday. Wisconsin looks like a Final Four team at times, but the second-seeded Badgers also seem capable of producing an untimely clunker, too.
Ohio State, led by bulldog point guard Aaron Craft, are tough but wildly inconsistent. Nebraska is an energetic upstart that could ride its momentum to a few victories, but are the Cornhuskers ready to make a deep run? Iowa looked formidable for a cup of coffee this season.
A number of teams in the field alternately inspire confidence and give pause. Kansas looked like a safe bet to make an extended run until center Joel Embiid, the possible No. 1 overall NBA draft pick, suffered a back injury that will force him to miss at least the first weekend of the tournament.
Syracuse started the season 25-0 but is 2-5 since. Defending national champion Louisville is ranked No. 5 nationally but earned a No. 4 seed, largely because it feasted on a weak schedule.
We also can’t forget about Villanova and Duke and Iowa State and UCLA and New Mexico and San Diego State and Cincinnati. All of them could get hot and make a run.
Trying to sort through this bracket could turn us into mental pretzels, but that’s the beauty of this tournament. We can pretend to be experts, but in reality, we’re just throwing darts at names.
By Chip Scoggins
©2014 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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