INDIANAPOLIS — Madness is inevitable.
The question is whether greatness will follow.
After a men’s college basketball season in which parity reigned and teams played hot potato with the No. 1 ranking, it’s easy to anticipate that the early-round drama of this NCAA tournament will be even wilder than usual. But once Cinderella’s pixie dust settles, it’s difficult to forecast what will remain.
This time, there is no undefeated Kentucky playing for immortality. That was the intrigue of the 2015 tournament. The 2014-15 regular season was a disaster of low scoring and poor quality that, finally, led to some key rule changes before this season. But the Wildcats helped mask much of it, and during the tournament, they validated the game’s enduring charm. In the Elite Eight, Kentucky survived Notre Dame, 68-66, in the best game of the year. And in the Final Four, when the 38-0 Wildcats lost to Wisconsin, the upset sent a message that, even in supposed down years, the game is still overflowing with virtue.
Then came this season and rule changes to speed up the pace of play, reduce over-coaching and continue the process of making the game less physical. A super team didn’t emerge. The freshman class didn’t rule the sport. It became the Year of the Upperclassman, and balanced, well-developed rosters with solid talent replaced the ultra-gifted, precocious, pre-NBA squads that had been dominant.
It all resulted in the kind of season that a college hoops traditionalist could appreciate. It felt more like something you would have seen 25 years ago. But the season received a “meh” reaction, which goes to show how comfortable we’ve become with the new norm and how important Goliath is to sports.
The quality of play is much better this season. Scoring is up in Division I. The pace of play has improved, and the limits on timeouts have made the games tighter. The sport is still too physical, and there’s still not enough consistency from officials in making charge/block judgments. Those are both factors that make driving to the basket a risky endeavor, but the game has made aesthetic progress.
So why the perception that this has been a mediocre season? There’s no Goliath. And apologies to Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine — who are fabulous seniors as well as running and jumping advertisements for the college game — there’s no transcendent superstar, either. There’s a lot of really good in the NCAA, no distinguishable great. As much as people say they’re tired of one-and-done freshmen hogging the attention and blue-blooded super powers dominating the game, this season presented variety, and it was met with apathy.
It began with so much volatility that parity became the overriding story line. But over the past month or so, an elite tier has emerged, and that group is better than the ongoing narrative suggests.
For all the parity, North Carolina, Michigan State and Kansas have separated themselves as the most dependable title contenders. Virginia, Oklahoma, Villanova, Kentucky and Oregon aren’t far behind. Oregon, which began the season unranked, is the only of these teams that wasn’t among the top 13 teams in the preseason.
The season has been balanced, but it hasn’t been so turbulent that anything is possible. Plenty of teams have hope, more hope than normal, but the vast middle class of college basketball might consume itself in this tournament. If you think it has been hard to identify the eight strongest contenders, try figuring out the next tier. It’s even deeper and more jumbled. Who’s willing to bet on how far Maryland, which has fallen from preseason top-five team to a No. 5 seed, will go? Or young and thin Duke? Or Arizona and its lackluster defense?
Those teams, not the top tier, could make this tournament wacky. But it’s not likely that we will see a repeat of the conference tournaments, in which 20 of the 31 No. 1 seeds lost.
Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, whose team received a surprising No. 2 seed Sunday after winning the Big Ten tournament and riding a streak of 13 victories in 14 games, is an NCAA tournament pragmatist. Despite not being a No. 1 seed, his team, he knows, carries the burden of being one of the favorites. But a national championship and seven Final Four appearances have taught him how to handle it. He’s at peace with a senior-laden team that has come so far over four years.
“I enjoy watching guys grow,” Izzo said. “Sometimes in this area, you don’t get to do that as much. No matter what happens to us from here on out, I said I think we have a team good enough to make a deep run. I really think that. But we can get beat tomorrow, just the way the tournament is. And nothing, nothing is going to disappoint me because they have been so in touch with everything and so on top of everything this whole year. I just keep hoping we can keep adding frosting to the cake.”
It’s dangerous to use the NCAA tournament to validate a season. It’s a crapshoot, a survival quest — not necessarily a measure of the best team. It is a measure of talent, toughness and resourcefulness, however. And for the sport, it amounts to a referendum on the current state of the game.
Was this a season of healthy parity? Or are these just a bunch of decent teams that couldn’t stand out? The spotlight of the tournament will expose the truth.
This tournament is the trickiest, most hypocritical of sporting events. At the beginning, you watch for upsets and buzzer-beaters. You delight in the chaos. But in the end, you need some of those giants to persevere, even if you root against them. You need to see great performances and feel like the winner is a worthy champion.
It’s boring without initial anarchy. And it’s unwatchable without eventual order. It’s such a high maintenance three-week event, but it’s always revealing.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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