College basketball heats up for March

With the college basketball regular season essentially wrapped up, teams are preparing for their conference tournaments with the aspirations of dancing, i.e., earning a bid to the NCAA college basketball tournament.

This year’s regular season continued an interesting parity within the sport. The traditional powerhouses aren’t their usual dominant selves, and the teams at the top of the rankings aren’t as unbeatable as in the past.

In addition, teams from smaller conferences crept into the top 25 early and often this season. Put all these elements together and you’ve a bubbling, volatile melting pot, setting up one of the most wide-open tournaments in history.

On Sunday the bracket will be revealed, with the tournament’s first round occurring on the following Thursday and Friday. The fate of many teams will hinge on their performances in their conference tournaments, as the winner of those tournaments automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament. Thirty-one teams will qualify this way, while the remaining 34 teams must wait for Selection Sunday and pray that the selection committee sees their strengths and not their faults.

Take a look at the top-ranked teams in the country, and you’ll see they have flaws of their own. I’m not convinced they are a cut above the rest. The Ohio State Buckeyes, ranked number one in both polls, do have a 14-game winning streak; however, in two of those games, the Buckeyes barely prevailed against Penn State, the last-place team in the Big Ten.

The Buckeyes are insanely talented, but they have five first-years playing extensive minutes.
UCLA, Wisconsin, and Florida are all in the top five, yet all three were upset recently. The Bruins lost to the unranked Washington Huskies; Wisconsin lost to unranked Michigan State and then fell to the Buckeyes. Florida, the defending national champions, lost to Vanderbilt, LSU, and Tennessee. North Carolina, highly ranked until recently, lost back-to-back games to Maryland and Georgia Tech in Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) action.

With the teams at the top not exactly cruising into the tournament, we also have the perennial top programs not flying so high and smoothly as we’d expect. Connecticut (1999 and 2004 national champions) and Duke (2001 champions), both number-one seeds last season, have struggled at times this season.

Connecticut will need to win the Big East tournament just to make the NCAA tournament, and Duke has fallen to an uncharacteristic sixth place in the ACC. Add in the fact that Kentucky (1996 and 1998 champions), Michigan State (2000 champions), and Arizona (1997 champions) are currently unranked, and the melting pot that is college basketball is as volatile as ever.

Mix in the mid-majors (teams from smaller conferences) to this melting pot and start stirring. Nevada, a member of the Western Athletic Conference, is not a newcomer to the scene, being a number-five seed in last year’s tournament. The Wolf Pack is ranked in the top 10 and Southern Illinois, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), is ranked number 11.
The MVC is quickly shedding its reputation as a mid-major, getting four tournament berths last season. Also, the Butler Bulldogs, from the Horizon League, won the Preseason NIT in November and have remained in the top 25 since.

If you single out one of these factors, then this argument isn’t very strong. But combining the facts that the traditional powerhouses aren’t as strong as usual, the top teams in the country aren’t flawless, and the mid-majors are making lots of noise results in an unknown concoction in this melting pot.

What’s missing is the mysterious elixir that masks the unpleasant taste of the concoction and reveals the secret to how this year’s tournament will unfold. I’m not going to lead you on, no elixir exists. You’re on your own as you predict the outcome of this year’s NCAA tournament. Just keep in mind, anything can, and usually does, happen during the madness that is March.