By Chris Mahr
Indiana was the No. 1 team in the preseason but could only maintain its hold on the top spot until mid-December, when the Hoosiers fell to in-state rival Butler. Yet their six-week run at the top spot has been longer than anything their successors have “enjoyed.”
Duke was No. 1 for four weeks before its upset loss to NC State on Jan. 12. Michigan had a chance to take over the top spot with a win the following day at Ohio State, but the Wolverines couldn’t cash in. And in just its second game as the top team in the country, Louisville lost to Syracuse, ceding the No. 1 ranking back to Duke.
Don’t be shocked to see the top spot change hands a few more times this season. And don’t take that to signify the lack of credentials among this year’s contenders. Rather, take it as a sign that we could be headed for a fantastic March one year after enduring a rather snooze-inducing one.
For all the chaos that gripped the early rounds of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky’s run to the title had an air of inevitability to it. With the exception of a somewhat close call in the Final Four against Louisville, the Wildcats were never truly threatened.
The truly memorable Big Dances are the ones in which the champion and/or participants from the Sweet Sixteen on are either completely unexpected, have endured their lumps along the way or both. And as the short-lived tenures of this year’s No. 1 teams have illustrated, no team will be able to get comfortable at the top.
The losses that those aforementioned teams endured illustrates the depth of this year’s field of contenders. Going by the Jan. 21 rankings, Indiana lost to ninth-ranked Butler (16–2), Duke to No. 18 NC State (15–3), Michigan to No. 14 Ohio State (13–4) and Louisville to third-ranked Syracuse (17–1).
While those games can be accurately characterized as upsets, they weren’t shockers. A berth in the second weekend is no guarantee for the current Top 16 because there’s a very small gap between them and the teams immediately behind.
Adding to the recipe for a memorable March is the decidedly mid-major flavor of the Top 25. Butler is one of two such teams (along with No. 10 Gonzaga) in the Top 10, and they staged an epic game this past Saturday. They’re two of five mid-majors in the Top 20, along with Creighton (No. 17), VCU (No. 19) and Wichita State (No. 20).
Among the power conference teams in the Top 25, you have your fair share of non-traditional hoops schools. The likes of Oregon (No. 16), Ole Miss (No. 23) and Miami (FL) (No. 25) have made themselves heard. There’s still ample time for teams on the fringe of the Top 25 — Marquette, UCLA, UNLV, San Diego State — to do the same.
All that depth and talent clawing at whoever is atop the college basketball pyramid makes it next to impossible to predict what will happen this spring.
Could we see multiple mid-majors crash the Final Four like in 2011 (VCU, Butler)? What about two No. 8 seeds in the Final Four like 2000 (Wisconsin, Florida)? Will we witness a title team outside the top three seeds for the first time since 1997 (Arizona)? Or what about a mid-major winning the national title for the first time since 1990 (UNLV)?
It all seems possible because unlike last year, there’s no one team seemingly predestined for a national title.
After a Big Dance whose end result came as no surprise, that’s exactly what we want. March is no time for sleeping.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports