March Madness is still more than a month away, but the excitement of the tournament has come early this year for college basketball fans.
As two more top-five teams — No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Kansas — fell on Saturday, a look at the basketball landscape continues to yield no discernible favorite heading into the final quarter of the regular season. Both teams had the potential to jump even higher in the rankings after No. 1 Indiana was toppled by unranked Illinois on Thursday but, as has been the trend this season, both were unable to capitalize.
Since Jan. 26, top-10 squads have gone down an astounding 13 times, with only one loss — No. 3 Indiana defeating the top-ranked Wolverines last Saturday — coming at the hands of a ranked team. All the upsets that give March Madness its namesake? We’ve been seeing them — with surprising regularity – for months now.
Roughly 25 games into the season, no fewer than a dozen schools can legitimately be called national championship contenders.
Indiana has the nation’s second-ranked offense behind Tyler Zeller — the closest thing the college game has to a superstar this season — while Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State are all jockeying with the Hoosiers atop a stacked Big 10. Butler has already knocked off Indiana once this season, and fellow mid-major Gonzaga has lost just two games — both to ranked opponents. Duke is still Duke.
But the resumes of this year’s contenders are far from airtight. Seven of the teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 have lost at least twice to unranked teams, and with four of the top five falling in the past week, a serious shakeup is expected when the new rankings are released on Monday.
The No. 4 Blue Devils, the only top-five squad to win out this week, are the safe bet to take over at No. 1, but they are far from the only worthy candidate. In fact, some are arguing that No. 8 Miami — which thrashed North Carolina by 26 points not long after steamrolling then-top-ranked Duke by 27 — deserves consideration for the top spot.
That’s how unpredictable this season has been. The Hurricanes, who haven’t reached the big dance since 2008 and routinely play in front of half-full crowds, have had their way with two of college basketball’s titans and now can say (with a straight face) that they deserve No. 1 consideration.
Speaking of titans, the Tar Heels — a No. 1 seed in last year’s tourney — have been absent from the top 25 since late December and Kentucky, which rolled to the national title with a 38-2 record last season, plummeted from the rankings after early losses to Notre Dame and Baylor and has not returned since. The Wildcats still rank second in a weak SEC, but would have to go on a serious run down the stretch to cement anything higher than a No. 5 seed in the tournament.
Some might argue that the lack of a clear-cut elite this season is detrimental to the game. I would argue the exact opposite. Parity is what college basketball needs. Sure, this season lacks the star-power aspect that Anthony Davis and Kemba Walker brought to the last two tournaments, but with such a deep field, the storylines are endless. With a dozen or more teams vying for the crown, this has the potential to be one of the most entertaining NCAA tournaments of all time.