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- This year’s March Madness could be rife with chaos, thanks to an unprecedented level of parity.
- Twenty-two teams ranked in the top of the AP Top 25 Poll have lost to unranked teams so far this season.
- Ordinarily dominant programs like Kentucky and Duke have suffered historically bad losses on their home floor.
- This year, the NCAA tournament bubble will likely include big-name programs and far more teams.
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College basketball has never been known for its predictability, but this season is – in no uncertain terms – an anomaly.
College basketball’s biggest fans knew before the season that there would not be a team with the singular talent of a squad like the Zion Williamson-led 2019-20 Duke Blue Devils. Nor would there be a team with the experience and fantastical comeback story of last year’s Virginia Cavaliers.
Still, no one could have expected a field this erratic – and it’s only January.
Twenty-two teams ranked in the top 1o of the AP Top 25 Poll have lost to unranked teams so far this season. Four teams held the top spot in the rankings through the first five weeks and the No. 1 designation would change hands twice more in the next three weeks. And all the while, the reigning national champions slowly slipped out of the top 25.
Michigan State lost to Kentucky to start the year. Then the Wildcats lost to Evansville at Rupp Arena. Duke took over the helm and lost in similarly embarrassing fashion to Stephen F. Austin at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Then Louisville ascended the throne and lost to an unranked Texas Tech squad coming off a three-game losing streak. Kansas came next and dropped one to a struggling Villanova squad. And it all happened before conference play even began.
“It’s just one of those years,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said after his team’s big win over the top-ranked Jayhawks. “There just isn’t one team that’s dominant.”
You could say that again, Jay.
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The Gonzaga Bulldogs have held the top spot since Week 8, but even they sustained a loss to an unranked opponent before heading into their (relatively) cushy West Coast Conference slate. In the new year, historically great programs have lost stunningly over and over again. Kentucky lost to South Carolina – its third loss to a sub-100 KenPom team this season. The Blue Devils lost to Clemson. Michigan State lost to Purdue. Kansas lost to Baylor. And North Carolina lost to – well – everyone, putting them at high risk to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
In other words, it has been absolute madness all across the country. And it’s not even March.
Conference play figures to be a rat race down the stretch. There’s no clear frontrunner in any of the Power Five conferences. Duke, Florida State, and Louisville will battle for control of the ACC. Kansas and Baylor lead the charge in the Big 12, but West Virginia and Texas Tech could certainly shoulder their ways in. Of the five Big Ten teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll, three sit at .500 or below in conference play. And with all of Arizona’s struggles of late, Oregon and Colorado look like the bright spots in an otherwise depleted Pac-12.
Even some of the mid-major conferences boast more parity than usual. Cincinnati, Wichita State, and Houston head up the AAC, while supposed conference heavyweights like Memphis and Connecticut struggle to find their footing. Duquesne somehow sits atop an Atlantic 10 that also includes Rhode Island, VCU, Dayton, and Davidson. The Big East is anybody’s guess with top-25 Villanova, Butler, Seton Hall, and Creighton squads battling to become top dog.
The only teams with a definitive hold on their conference’s top spot are the undefeated San Diego State Aztecs of the Mountain West and the country’s No. 1 team in the WCC’s Gonzaga Bulldogs.
This unprecedented level of parity, both across the country and within individual conferences, all but ensures that this year’s March Madness will be rife with chaos. Teams cycle in and out of the AP rankings – not to mention the top 10 – with such frequency that it’ll be difficult to discern who is deserving of the top seeds.
And it’s more than possible that some of the teams that win their conference tournaments – and thus earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament – would not otherwise have secured a spot in the 68-team field. As in any year, teams on the fringes who otherwise may have been deserving of a bid would be left out. But this year, it seems likely not only that the bubble will include big-name programs, but also that the bubble will encompass far more teams as a result of volatility across the NCAA.
And once seeding is done, bedlam ensues.
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March Madness features upsets galore in an ordinary year. But in a year when the margins between any two seeds are far narrower than usual, it’s almost naive to assume things will proceed in an orderly fashion. There will be no Davids toppling Goliaths – as in 2018 when No. 1 Virginia lost to No. 16 UMBC – when there are no Goliaths to speak of, but every David will likely have the potential to reach the Final Four.
Whether this means we wind up with a Blue Blood as king of the dance or a lesser-established program making a name for itself, one thing is clear – the road to Atlanta will make for quite a bumpy ride.
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