The dancing officially began Tuesday night with the First Four in Dayton. It was the first song, so only a few teams were invited. By Thursday, everyone else will get in the mix, as the NCAA Tournament returns with what promises to be an unpredictably exciting three weeks if the topsy-turvy regular season is any indication.
Below are five storylines to follow in the coming weeks:
Amidst the hoopla of the one-and-done era — the recruiting dominance with future lottery picks perennially at Duke and Kentucky — is the reality of the situation: Experience still prevails more often than not. The last two champions, North Carolina and Villanova, were senior-heavy. Last year’s Final Four didn’t include any freshmen-led teams. Only two one-and-done teams (Duke in 2015, Kentucky in 2012), have cut down the nets.
That could change this year, however. While the four No.1-seeds are built mostly on veterans, second-seeded Duke in the Midwest, fourth-seeded Arizona in the South, and fifth-seeded Kentucky in the South are legitimate Final Four contenders.
All three came on late, Arizona and Kentucky winning their respective conference tournaments, Duke finishing its regular season winning seven of its past nine games. Two of the four Naismith Trophy finalists are freshmen — big men Marvin Bagley III of Duke and Deandre Ayton of Arizona, contenders to be the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft who could only meet in the national championship game. Then there are two must-watch guards, Collin Sexton of No. 8 Alabama in the East, and Trae Young of No. 10 Oklahoma in the Midwest who have the ability and the supporting casts to lead their lower-seeded teams on surprising runs.
Mind the gap
Virginia, the No. 1-overall seed, began this season unranked. So was Michigan, the No. 3-seed in the West. Tennessee, the third seed in the South, was picked 13th in the SEC, and Auburn, the fourth seed in the Midwest, was picked ninth. Preseason top-10 USC didn’t reach the tournament. The two unanimous favorites at the beginning of the season, Michigan State and Duke, failed to win their conference tournaments, and have battled consistency issues.
It was an unpredictable season, which could make for a wild tournament. There are no heavy Final Four favorites, no likely champions. Everyone has weaknesses, some more obvious than others. The difference between a No. 1-seed and a No. 8 is smaller than it’s ever been.
Walking on eggshells
Since the Yahoo and ESPN reports detailing widespread impropriety of numerous players and programs nearly three weeks ago, the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball has been quiet. Almost too quiet. Many of the top programs in the tournament have been linked to the probe. Arizona (Emmanuel “Book” Richardson) and Auburn (Chuck Person), the fourth seed in the Midwest, had assistant coaches arrested back in September as part of the investigation. The ESPN report alleged coach Sean Miller being caught on wiretaps discussing a payment to get Ayton to attend Arizona, which Miller denied and other reports poked holes in.
In the least, these players and programs will be asked about the allegations frequently throughout the tournament. If any of them reach the Final Four, it would be the story of the sport’s biggest weekend. And it’s also possible more info leaks out over the next three weeks, creating further chaos.
If the shoe fits …
Everyone loves Cinderella. It’s what makes this month so unique, why the first weekend frequently draws the most eyeballs and creates the most intrigue. This version of March Madness should be no different.
Missouri Valley champion Loyola of Chicago, a No. 11-seed in the South, has the explosiveness and experience to not only get past No. 6 Miami but also Tennessee. Another team to watch is New Mexico State, a 12-seed in the Midwest. The Aggies, built on hardened transfers and featuring one of the best rebounders in the country in Jemerrio Jones (13.1), get fading fifth-seeded Clemson in the first round, and undersized No. 4 Auburn next.
There is only one team that would stun us if it failed to reach the Final Four in San Antonio. They may as well change the name of the East to the Villanova Invitational. There isn’t one team in the region that should strike fear into the top-seeded Wildcats. Second-seeded Purdue won’t, and neither will No. 3 Texas Tech. Villanova would shred No. 5 West Virginia’s press, and fourth-seeded Wichita State has been shaky against top competition.
Meanwhile, Virginia, the top seed in the South, just lost valuable wing DeAndre Hunter (broken wrist) and has roadblocks in its way like Arizona and Ayton, rugged AAC champion Cincinnati, the second seed, and Tennessee. In the West, Xavier could meet last year’s runner-up Gonzaga, the fourth seed, in the Sweet 16, and would likely have to deal with Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan or defending national champion North Carolina, the second seed, and its army of lethal offensive weapons. And in the Midwest, No. 1 Kansas could draw Duke or No. 3 Michigan State in the regional final.
Jay Wright and Co. couldn’t have scripted it any better.