A game with minuscule margins and small sample sizes has evolved into a game of chance where the outcome will likely depend on one’s health, shot selection, and possibly even luck.
This was billed as the most unpredictable NCAA men’s tournament in a generation throughout the whole season. There was less blue in the bluebloods. Teams in the top spots have glaring weaknesses. Teams’ fortunes fluctuated from game to game and week to week as a result of older players having an extra COVID year, an uncontrollable transfer situation, and a crop of freshmen that were entirely unprepared for the big time.
Now here we are, practically done with the first weekend of March Madness, and there’s an important question to ask: Who is going to win the national championship?
Perhaps putting it differently would be preferable. Dare to dream if you survive this insane event and are still alive by Sunday night. Princeton, you as well. That is up for grabs.
The next two weeks will likely be determined by health, random shotmaking, and possibly just pure luck in a sport where small sample sizes and minuscule margins are the norms. Instead, the game has evolved into a roulette wheel of possibilities.
Once in a while Once Purdue and Kansas were eliminated from the bracket on Saturday, it looked like Houston may be the third No. 1 seed to lose in the opening weekend. Instead, the Cougars overcame a 10-point deficit at the half and eventually asserted themselves to defeat Auburn’s comeback attempt, 81-64.
But Houston’s chances of winning the championship are just as precarious as the groin and knee muscles of Marcus Sasser and Jamal Shead, respectively. When they both faced Auburn, Sasser in particular looked like him, scoring 22 points in just 31 minutes. Can that hold up for four more games with little time to recover fully?
These factors decide champions in a single-elimination tournament. Ask Kansas, whose campaign came to an end without Bill Self sitting on the bench. Self underwent an operation to open up blocked arteries last week, and was not yet cleared to go back to work.
Did his absence play a role in Arkansas’ 72-71 loss? Probably. The Razorbacks, on the other hand, is representative of how little difference there is this season between most of these teams.
The reason Arkansas was a No. 8 seed was that they struggled with injuries and didn’t play to their full ability for a large portion of the season. Arkansas likely has more players than Kansas who will make a life in the NBA. Why not Arkansas at this point?
What about Tennessee, who shot horribly for much of the season but made nine threes on Saturday to defeat Duke, who was in hot form? The Vols guard like crazy, but their offensive analytics don’t place them among the top 50 teams. What if they unexpectedly find their mojo for a few games?
The analytics favor UConn, which will play St. Mary’s on Sunday in hopes of facing Arkansas in Las Vegas the following week.
The two best offensive teams in the nation are Gonzaga and Baylor, but their defenses are subpar. Although UCLA’s offense is occasionally questionable, its defense is excellent. Yet maybe this is the kind of competition where one outstanding player on a scorching run, like potentially Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, who appears to have gone two months without missing a shot, might lead an improbable squad to victory.
Because of the early-round upsets, the actual heavyweights usually have a better chance of winning this event. For a few days, the Cinderellas are the center of attention, but by the Sweet 16, the front-runners have emerged.
Yet at this point, it’s difficult to even say who the true favorites are, especially because the two No. 1 seeds still in the game both have some obvious medical problems. The Cougars won’t continue to triumph moving ahead if Sasser is incorrect. Also, even though overall No. 1 seed Alabama easily defeated Maryland on Saturday, it is obvious that standout freshman Brandon Miller is in error. He had 0 points against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi in the first round, which the club blamed on an ongoing groin problem, and he looked to be having trouble again against the Terrapins.
The two top-ranked teams in the tournament are far from locked to even make it to the Final Four due to the injury vulnerabilities associated with their finest players.
With Kansas’ loss, UCLA, the No. 2 seed who should be the favorite to win the West, also has a lot of injury problems. In the last minute of the Bruins’ victory over Northwestern, David Singleton went down with what appeared to be a leg injury, replacing top perimeter defender Jaylen Clark who went out with an injury late in the regular season. How much more can UCLA withstand?
It served as yet another reminder of how frail these teams’ hopes are. Every team that makes it to the Sweet 16 will be able to win its ensuing game in a year where the disparities at the top are negligible. Nothing that occurs after this point can be regarded as a great surprise.
The beauty of March Madness is that anyone can defeat anyone on any given day. This was once again demonstrated when Fairleigh Dickinson surprised Purdue and became only the second No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1.
But during the competition, the well-known teams and top athletes typically come out on top. One of those years doesn’t seem to be this one. We could wind up with two or three teams in the Final Four which appeared quite impossible when the bracket was released, given the special combination of factors that have damaged the top teams.
During the last four months, college basketball appeared to be a sport without a clear hierarchy, setting the stage for a tournament in which anything might happen. So far, it has been delivered on time.