The NCAA tournament bracket was released Sunday night, and a look at this year’s field of 68 reveals a remarkable level of parity.
The crumbling Big East leads all conferences with nine participants and the loaded Big 10 boasts seven of its own, but the Mountain West and Atlantic 10 — traditional mid-major conferences — each sent five teams to the dance while the SEC, ACC and Pac-12 all sent four or fewer.
Only one team from the SEC or Pac-12 earned higher than a No. 6 seed (Florida at No. 3 in the South Region), and both Ole Miss and Oregon earned just No. 12 seeds despite winning their respective conference tournaments.
But what the tumultuous regular season overshadowed was the sheer amount of talent at the top. Had the Big 10 not been so dominant from top to bottom this season, we might be talking about Indiana — or Michigan, or Michigan State, or Ohio State, or Wisconsin — as a prohibitive favorite entering the national tournament. With each team taking turns beating up on one another, a true No. 1 was never able to emerge.
Perceived weakness atop the rankings was, in fact, the result of an unprecedented increase in quality teams. Indiana, seeded No. 1 in the East Region, lost five times this season, but each of those defeats came at the hands of a tournament-bound team. The same can be said for Big East champion Louisville, which claimed the tournament’s overall top seed despite being ranked as low as tenth in the polls just three weeks ago.
Kansas was the only No. 1 seed to fall to a non-tournament team — suffering embarrassing losses to both Baylor and lowly TCU — but the Jayhawks’ romp through the Big 12 tournament makes them a popular pick to emerge from the South Region. Bill Self‘s squad is coming off a 70-54 beatdown of Kansas State (now a No. 4 seed) in Saturday’s conference title game but will now need to fight its way through a terror of a regional that includes VCU, Florida, Michigan and Georgetown.
Make no mistake about it, the mid-majors will make a splash. It wouldn’t be surprising to see four or five “non-traditional” schools in the Sweet 16 later this month, and a few (especially No.1 seed Gonzaga, No. 3 seed New Mexico and No. 5 seed VCU) have a legitimate shot at the Final Four.
But ultimately, all this power shift accomplished was replacing mid-level schools from major conferences (your typical Alabamas, Clemsons and LSUs) with above-average squads from the less-heralded leagues. In other words, 90 percent of them will be bounced before the end of the week.
When it comes time to crown a champion on April 8, the kings (Final Four veterans like the Hoosiers and Cardinals) will stay the kings.