The madness of March is upon us, and this tournament, unlike a year ago, should be unpredictable because there aren't many, if any, dominant teams in it. Basketball purists will point to the tournament bracket and say it is evidence of parity, but the fact is, there are no great teams like the one Carolina had last year, and there are few great players.
Power conferences like the Pacific Ten and the Southeastern Conference are down, and the best teams in the Big East, aside from Syracuse, aren't as good as they were a season ago.
Just look at Villanova. A Final Four team last year. Losers of five of its last seven heading into the tournament this year.
"People like to say there's parity," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last week. "There's no parity. That's laughable. Parity is an excuse for losing. . . . It's just one of those years where, at the end of the line, we're talking about pretty average teams at best."
That won't make this tournament boring. Quite the contrary. It's wide open. But if you love dominance, you won't get that this year. Not here.
Last year, everyone knew if the Tar Heels played up to their potential, no one could beat them, and sure enough, they breezed through the tournament, winning six games by an average of 20.5 points per game. If anything, the Tar Heels' tournament performance showed they probably were just bored during the regular season, when they lost three games.
Four players off that Carolina team were selected in the NBA draft, including two underclassmen, Ty Lawson (18th, by Minnesota) and Wayne Ellington (28th, by Minnesota).
And now? The Tar Heels went 16-15 in the regular season, including 5-11 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and lost in the first round of the ACC tournament. They are out of the NCAAs.
This year, two of the projected No. 1 seeds are good, but not dominant. Syracuse lost to Louisville twice and then checked out of the Big East tournament in the quarterfinals against Georgetown. Duke shared the ACC regular-season title with Maryland, but this isn't a strong Mike Krzyzewski team. Even he would admit it.
Kentucky's team is built on youth. Three of its starters - John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, and DeMarcus Cousins - are freshmen, and they are athletic and quick but inexperienced in tournament action.
Kansas is the favorite - balanced, with veteran guards and solid big men - and should be the No. 1 overall seed. After that? It's anyone's pick.
"I've said there's no great team out there, and there's not," Bilas said. "There are some really good teams, but no one's great. All you have to do is look at the Big East. With the exception of Syracuse, name a team in the top half of the league that's as good as they were last year. Maybe West Virginia. Everybody else is not as good. Villanova is not as good. Pittsburgh is nowhere near as good. Louisville is nowhere near as good.
"When you say 'down,' people make it negative. The Big East is not quite as strong as it's been, and it's been strong."
Bilas is not alone in his assessment.
"This year is one of those times where there is an equal opportunity amongst a number of teams," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "There's not any clear-cut advantage. I don't think it's anything that's crazy. It's just one of those years that a lot of different teams can win it."
Added Texas coach Rick Barnes: "When there's a mediocre year, everybody wants to say it's parity. Some years there are teams that are just all OK. There's no great ones. I'm not sure any team that wins the national championship will go down as a 'great team.' "
So why are there no real favorites? Why is there parity, or mediocrity?
Dunphy said it's the cumulative result of the NCAA's decreasing the scholarship limit from 15 to 14 to 13 in the early 1990s. Others pointed to the relatively recent NBA rule forbidding players from jumping directly from high school into the league. Now, almost all players opt for a year of college hoops, rather than a season overseas, and the truly special freshmen have an immediate impact and leave a huge void.
Look at UCLA. The Bruins are a shell of the team that went to three consecutive Final Fours from 2005 to 2008. Why? Since 2007, UCLA has had five underclassmen, including freshmen Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday, leave early for the draft. Memphis selected Love fifth overall in 2008, and the Sixers picked Holiday 17th last year.
If the NBA eligibility rules were different, consider what UCLA would look like this year: Holiday would be a sophomore, Love a junior, and Russell Westbrook, the fourth overall pick in 2008, would be a senior. A team with those three players wouldn't have gone 13-17 in the regular season.
Likewise, this could have been Texas' team last year: Daniel Gibson (Cleveland Cavaliers), D.J. Augustin (Charlotte Bobcats), P.J. Tucker (playing professionally overseas), LaMarcus Aldridge (Portland Trail Blazers), and Kevin Durant (averaging nearly 30 points per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder).
"I just think the way it's set up now, if you have a great team and a couple of the great players are young, they don't stay long enough to create a dynasty, so it creates parity," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who had the Wildcats in the Final Four last year. "I think it's great for college basketball.
"Last year, we had four seniors. We didn't have any superstars, but we had a lot of great players, like Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds. It wasn't like a Kentucky team this year, but we were able to be a great team in college basketball. A team like North Carolina is going to be dominant. But you knew that Lawson and Ellington were going to go. If they were on the Carolina team this year, this would be a hell of a team.
"So you just know it's hard to keep it going. And that gives everybody a chance."
Even in a year where most every team is average and it's been tough to predict which teams deserve an at-large bid, the NCAA is contemplating expanding the tournament to 96 teams, a proposition that excites some - like Wright, who essentially said the more, the merrier - and worries others.
ESPN's resident bracketologist, St. Joseph's Joe Lunardi, recently put together a mock 96-team bracket for this season. Carolina was one of the last teams in, and 13 of the 16 Big East teams made it.
"I think that's silly," Lunardi said. "I really don't know how else to say it, and that's no disrespect to the 13th team. . . . From a basketball standpoint, [expansion] is absolutely not necessary. No team that has a legitimate chance of being a national champion is excluded now. It's not like we need a bigger field to make the champion more legitimate.
"I hope they give it considerable thought. How great is it when a late regular-season game has so much meaning or a conference tournament game has so much meaning? To a large degree, that will be diluted if the most dramatic expansion plan goes into place."
Said Bilas: "It would be a huge mistake. We'll devalue the regular season. The unintended consequences are the scary thing. Right now, basketball for the masses is a two-month endeavor. Hard-core fans watch from the first dribble, casual fans after the Super Bowl. Why devalue the most interesting time of the year?"
For this tournament, Kansas, Syracuse, and Kentucky will be the favorites, but someone else - like Michigan State - could sneak in there and take it.
"It's a short 40-minute window," Dunphy said. "If you're the underdog, you have a chance."
That's never been truer than now.
"The public has proven to be attracted to dynasties - the Yankees or North Carolina or, dare I say, Tiger Woods," Lunardi said. "The tournament in its early rounds gets its charm from upsets, and I think this year we might have a lot of them because there might not be a lot of difference between a 6 [seed] and an 11 [seed] in the first round."
As for that upset at the very end of the dance? Jennifer Hudson will sing "One Shining Moment," the first woman to sing CBS's college basketball anthem. Of course, whom she's singing about might be an even bigger upset.
Contact staff writer Ashley Fox
at 215.854.5064 or firstname.lastname@example.org.