FOR THE last two decades the competitive landscape in college basketball has become increasingly flat. Whereas the traditional blue-blood programs once loomed over the sport like so many mountain peaks, those brand names have been eroded by a confluence of forces—a decrease in the number of scholarships, an increase in defections to the NBA draft by underclassmen, a surge of transfers and an explosion in televised games, which has brought exposure to many more teams. Is this the season that the last NCAA tournament barrier between the powerhouses and the pretenders crumbles, and a No. 16 seed beats a No. 1?
The parity writ large was most evident at the top of the AP poll, where six teams spent at least a week at No. 1. Only in 1982--83 did more teams (seven) share the top spot. Through Sunday, teams ranked in the top 10 had lost 73 times, which is the most in a regular season since the AP poll began, in 1948--49. The 37 losses suffered by teams in the top five was tied (with 1989--90) for the most ever. The shockers came so frequently that they ceased to be shocking.
In addition to the factors above, an underperforming freshman class made it harder for the schools that usually hoard the one-and-doners to reload. Duke and Kentucky each have one stud freshman (the Blue Devils with 6'9" guard Brandon Ingram, the Wildcats with 6'5" guard Jamal Murray), but other recruits from those schools (Duke forward Chase Jeter, UK forward Skal Labissiere) have been nonfactors. Kansas reached the No. 1 ranking with a veteran starting five, but its top two freshman have ridden the pine all season, which has reduced the Jayhawks' margin for error. Many newbies who did have a big impact chose to play for rebuilding programs: Ben Simmons at LSU, Jaylen Brown at Cal, Henry Ellenson at Marquette and Stephen Zimmerman at UNLV. Next year's incoming class is stronger and deeper than the current one, but even after those youngbloods arrive, the divide between the haves and the have-nots will continue to shrink.
All of this augurs for a wild NCAA tournament, even by the ever-crazier standards of March Madness. It was 10 years ago that George Mason made its stunning run to the Final Four, becoming the first bona fide mid-major to crash the game's biggest stage. The Patriots were an 11th seed in 2006, which tied them with LSU in 1986 for the lowest-seeded team to reach the Final Four. The Tigers, however, came from the SEC. George Mason was a 23--8 team from the Colonial Athletic Association, and while its achievement was initially considered a once-in-a-lifetime event, in the last six years four mid-majors have claimed spots in the national semifinals (including Butler twice, in 2010 and '11).
In the end it's still likely that a team from a power conference will win this year's NCAA tournament. Here, SI's experts make cases for Villanova, Kansas, Virginia and Michigan State to be the last ones standing. But the NCAA tournament is more about the journey than the destination, and if the road ahead is anything like the road we've been traveling this winter, get ready for a truly maddening few weeks.
Win probabilities calculated by Ed Feng, based on SI.com bracket projections. To see probabilities for every tournament game, go to thepowerrank.com/ncaa-tournament-predictions
Photograph by Jeff Jacobsen
SPARTY ON Harris (14) and Michigan State got the best of the Jayhawks in this early season matchup, but both teams have gotten much better since then.
GEOFF BURKE/USA TODAY SPORTS
MAIN-LINE DEFENSE The Wildcats had trouble containing Gill (with ball), who had 22 points when Nova faced off against Virginia on Dec. 19, but their D has evolved into one of the nation's most efficient.