This March, college basketball might truly be mad

With experienced players such as Eric Hayes, U-Md. could be a dark horse in the NCAA tourney.
With experienced players such as Eric Hayes, U-Md. could be a dark horse in the NCAA tourney. (John Mcdonnell/the Washington Post)
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By Michael Wilbon
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March Madness is on right now. Gonzaga already lost in its conference tournament title game. Connecticut is already out of the Big East tournament and probably out of the Big Dance. The Pacific-10 may get only two teams in the tournament, and neither of them is UCLA. North Carolina is nowhere to be found.

The Big Ten's best team, Purdue, is without its best player. Texas is in free fall. Florida has lost three straight and is on the bubble. Any team that reaches No. 1 is almost immediately beaten.

If you love the madness, this is the good news. The NCAA men's basketball tournament is at its best when unpredictability reigns, and this could be the perfect storm of chaos. There's no great team in college basketball. Kansas is very, very good. But twice this season, the Jayhawks have lost promptly after being ranked No. 1. Syracuse is very, very good. But it got swept by Louisville. Butler's got that insane winning streak, 20 straight after winning the Horizon League title game, but do we really think they're 1979 Indiana State?

Everybody out there is charmingly flawed, which is just what March calls for, starting this week. We've had two consecutive NCAA tournaments of terrific teams justifying their high seeding, which made for two largely boring final weekends in 2008 and 2009. The bet here is the absence of a great team (or teams) this March will produce loads of drama in the form of upsets and buzzer-beaters. It's that wide open.

Asked if the prevailing conditions should make for craziness this week and next, Villanova Coach Jay Wright, whose team has lost four of six going into the Big East tournament, said, "More so than ever."

The past two years, the top teams were experienced. Even when teams were led by a wondrous freshman, such as Derrick Rose of Memphis in 2008, they were supported by two- and three-year players. Wright compared his current team to last season's team, which reached the Final Four. "We were number two in the country at the time," Wright recalled thinking, "and I thought, 'This team isn't close to that team [yet].' But there were a lot of experienced teams.

"Last year, you had Carolina, you had Connecticut. Our team had four seniors last year. A lot of those teams lost a lot of players. When you get to tournament time and you've got young people, anything can happen. The teams that will probably be the most successful are the teams that have the experienced players."

And those might not be the No. 1 seeds or the marquee teams from the marquee conferences. It might be a team that's not even in the NCAA tournament yet, some team that has to play its way in between now and Selection Sunday. Maybe it'll be Northern Iowa, a team I'm seriously considering to pick as a dark horse to win a couple of games in the Big Dance.

Maybe it'll be Maryland (if the Terrapins haven't peaked too early), which has two seniors in the back court (Greivis Vasquez and Eric Hayes), which can be just the formula you're looking for. Don't forget, Landon Milbourne is a senior. Adrian Bowie is a junior. Cliff Tucker, the swingman who comes off the bench, is a junior.

There's some urgency to this tournament, too, regardless of whom you might be rooting for. It might be the last perfect tournament. Because the NCAA can opt out of its 11-year deal with CBS on Aug. 31, we're probably looking at an expanded tournament, sadly to 96 teams. There's just so, so much potential money involved from new rights fees the NCAA would reap from television partners. Thinking primarily (and understandably) about their own job security, coaches want the expansion. The rest of us don't want it; a USA Today poll revealed that 80 percent of fans are against tournament expansion.

But we're talking about the NCAA, which is populated with people so dumb they'll ruin the basketball tournament -- which is the closest thing in sports to perfection -- yet not fix college football by going to a playoff. Thing is, smaller never wins out. The NFL is about to go from 16 to 18 games, another mistake in terms of the quality of the product.

If this is going to be the last tournament before expansion, perhaps it will be a great one, one that's impossible to predict, one that wreaks havoc with brackets everywhere.

One thing folks in this area presume is that the Big East is the superior entity going into this week. And there's no question that Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Villanova, West Virginia, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown and Notre Dame are going to the Big Dance. But don't sleep on the Big 12. Baylor's been flying under the radar, flying in general.

Oklahoma State has the Big 12's player of the year, James Anderson, and the Cowboys gave Kansas its only in-league loss. Maybe Texas's fall is less about the Longhorns suddenly stinking and more about the quality and depth of the Big 12.

It's a story that might only be noticed next week when we get to the main event. But in the meantime, desperate teams will play desperate games just to get there. Little conferences with no hope of a team getting an at-large bid will likely look around at the big boys and think: "They're not that tough, not this year. We can take them."

That confidence and the relative parity across the nation ought to let the tournament live up to the considerable discussion and anticipation that precede it.


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