Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Season to Expect the Unexpected

By Ross Lancaster

As a college basketball fan, I can't begin to keep track of the number of times someone has told me, "The regular season doesn't mean anything. I'm just waiting for the tournament to start."

No, I would always say or think. Of the 340-odd teams in Division I, only 68 make the NCAA tournament. The fact that only 20 percent of teams make the field means that it's a more selective field than any of the four major professional sports' playoffs. But most of all, teams with disappointing, middling or even merely "good" regular seasons rarely go on to have championship-winning success. For every one of the last 24 NCAA tournaments, the national champion has been a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed. And since seeding began in 1979, only three times has the national champion been outside of the top 12 teams in America as deemed by the selection committee.

But the 2012-13 season stands to possibly change all that. Not only is there not a "great" team as was the case with Kentucky a year ago, it's a struggle to find too many teams that would even earn the "very good" label. For this season at least, those regular season skeptics may be exactly on target.

Currently, only one team, Gonzaga, has two losses. Seven teams have three, and 10 more have four. At this time a year ago, we were talking about No. 1 Kentucky, No. 2 Syracuse, each with one loss, and an undefeated Murray State team.

It's almost always a trite and boring expression in sports to say things like "anybody can beat anybody," especially in college athletics, where talent levels and budgets can be widely disparate, even among top conferences. But is anybody going to be too surprised if something happens along the lines of last year's first round (come at me, NCAA), when two No. 15 seeds beat No. 2 seeds happens again?

Go ahead and take a look at The Bracket Matrix website, which aggregates how the 77 "bracketologists" see the tournament lining up if the season ended today.

The top three seed lines feature a Miami team that lost to Florida Gulf Coast, a Kansas team that lost to the worst major conference team in America (TCU) and an Arizona team that seems intent on being perhaps the most underwhelming No. 3 (or maybe even No. 2) seed in recent memory. More teams thought to be in the upper echelon of college basketball seem to be losing more frequently and to worse teams than ever before.

Now, if forced to pick a favorite for this puzzling campaign, myself and several other observers would go with Florida. The Gators have been among the nation's best offensively and defensively all season, and have, with the exception of a no-show at Arkansas two weeks ago, unequivocally taken care of business since the calendar turned to 2013.

Yet, Florida has done so in an SEC that features no other elite teams and may only feature one other tournament team, especially after Nerlens Noel's awful injury in Gainesville put a significant dent in the defending champions' hopes of merely returning to the field of 68. Key bench player Will Yeguete is still out for the Gators and may not return until the SEC or NCAA tournament. Billy Donovan's team also struggles immensely at getting to the line, making it vulnerable to an NCAA game where the team's jumpers aren't falling.

But the same sort of analysis could be done with any of a number of contenders. Miami has repeatedly had luck on its side. Indiana suffers from occasional defensive lapses. Louisville can have the opposite problem on offense. Duke hasn't looked the same since Ryan Kelly's injury. Kansas doesn't have a point guard. Gonzaga's only tests since the Butler loss are against not-as-good-as-yesteryear BYU and St. Mary's teams.

It might be the case that this is a season where tournament success will come to those teams that were tested through the regular season. In a year where more major conferences than usual (see: ACC, SEC, Pac-12) are down, teams from the Big Ten, Big East, and to a lesser extent, the Big 12 and Mountain West who have to deal with schedules where they may play multiple tourney teams in a row should stand to benefit from such a weird season.

Go back and look at The Bracket Matrix. If that streak of No. 1, 2 or 3 seeds winning the title ends, it seems very possible that it could be a team like Marquette, Pitt, Wisconsin or Ohio State — a good, but hardly perfect team that has been tested throughout the season that puts together a string of wins against vulnerable opposition (which even the No. 1 seeds will qualify as this year).

It's an incredible historical anomaly that, at this point in the season, there are thought to be so few truly elite teams and so many teams that have a less-than-zero chance of winning the title. Of course, things change rapidly in a single-elimination tournament once the NCAAs start — no one thought Butler and VCU would play in the Final Four two years ago. Whether the presence of such parity at the top of the sport is a good thing is up to the fans, but a year so hard to figure out may result in a most crazy tail end of the season.

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