Another bracket has been unveiled, and the favorites before the season — and most seasons — remain among the top title contenders in the NCAA Tournament.
Kansas is a No. 1 seed, as is Villanova. Duke is a No. 2, along with North Carolina. Michigan State is a No. 3. Pac-12 Tournament champion Arizona is a No. 4, and Kentucky is one of the most dangerous fifth seeds in years, following its run through the SEC Tournament.
But this year, it’s as likely as ever that a nontraditional power will be the last team standing at the Final Four in San Antonio.
No. 1 overall seed Virginia headlines a crop of contenders — along with No. 1 Xavier, No. 2 Purdue, No. 4 Gonzaga and No. 4 Wichita State — seeking its first national championship, with No. 2 and AAC champion Cincinnati searching for its first title since 1962.
The latest wide-open NCAA Tournament looks vastly different this year, though, following a slew of surprise seasons by football-first schools, such as No. 3 Tennessee, No. 3 Texas Tech, No. 4 Auburn, No. 5 Clemson, and No. 6 TCU.
Auburn is making its first appearance since 2003. Clemson is back for the first time since 2011, and TCU clinched its first bid in 20 years, under second-year coach Jamie Dixon.
The NCAA Tournament has crowned a different champion every year since 2012, but hasn’t produced a first-time winner since 2006 (Florida). In the decade before the Gators’ first title, there were five first-time winners, and the current stretch represents the longest drought in NCAA history without a program cutting down the final net for the first time.
The top-seeded Cavaliers (31-2) are coming off a sweep of the ACC regular-season and tournament championships, and have already set a school-record for single-season wins, but Tony Bennett’s patient, brilliant and disciplined overachievers have been able to ride their incomparable defense, and archaic pace, only as far as the Elite Eight once. Virginia is still looking for its first Final Four appearance since 1984, and has never made it to the championship game.
Though seven of the past 13 overall No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four, only three have won the national championship, and none since Louisville’s recently vacated 2013 title.
“The NCAA Tournament, you want to do as well as you can in that. Those are the tangible things everybody judges you on,” Bennett said following Saturday night’s win over North Carolina. “We’ve got to be ready to go when it comes to that. Of course, we want to be as good as we can, but we know, there’s so much parity in this tournament, you get as healthy as you can, as ready as you can. And don’t overcomplicate it.”
The defending-champion Tar Heels (26-10) have only two starters back from last year’s championship team, but hope that the country’s top rebounding unit, and another high-scoring roster — led by last year’s most outstanding player of the Final Four, Joel Berry II — could produce the first back-to-back champions in 11 years. If North Carolina reaches the title game, it would become the first team to make three straight championship appearances in two decades (Kentucky), but no defending champion has advanced past the Sweet 16 since Joakim Noah and Florida won two straight in 2005-06 and 2006-07.
Duke (26-7) followed its rival as the second-ranked No. 2-seed, and enters with the most talented team in the nation, featuring five soon-to-be first-round draft picks.
Kansas (27-7) grabbed a No.1-seed for the ninth in the past 12 years, but the Jayhawks have failed to reach the Final Four in their past five attempts as the top-seed — including the past two seasons. Xavier (28-5) was named a No. 1-seed for the first time in school history after ending Villanova’s streak of four straight Big East regular-season championships.
But even if a familiar face ends up on top, there could still be fresh faces in the Final Four.
Last year, two of the participants made their first appearances (Gonzaga, South Carolina), while another broke a 78-year Final Four drought (Oregon). And in five straight seasons, a No. 7-seed or lower has reached the national semifinals.
Good luck with your bracket.