The NCAA Men’s Tournament is up for grabs like never before

Throughout the season, it promised to be the most open NCAA men’s tournament in a generation. Blue bloods weren’t so blue. The top-ranked teams had obvious flaws. The combination of an extra COVID year for older players, an out-of-control transfer environment and a cohort of freshmen who were largely not ready for prime time meant that the the fortunes of the teams progressed from match to match, from week to week.

Now we’re almost done with the first weekend of March Madness, and there’s an important question to ask: who will win the national championship?

Maybe it would be better to say it another way. If you’re still alive Sunday night in this crazy tournament, go ahead and dare to dream. Even you, Princeton. It’s really up for grabs.

A sport of small sample sizes and microscopic margins has turned into a roulette wheel of possibilities that will likely be determined over the next two weeks by health, random shooting, and perhaps sheer luck.

For a moment on Saturday, it looked like Houston could be the third No. 1 seed to fall in the first weekend, following Purdue and Kansas right out of the bracket. Instead, the Cougars trailed 10 points at halftime and eventually asserted themselves to end Auburn’s thwarted bid, 81-64.

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But it’s clear that Houston’s championship chances are as fragile as the injured muscles in Marcus Sasser’s groin and Jamal Shead’s knee. Both played against Auburn, and Sasser in particular looked alike with 22 points in 31 minutes. Can it take four more games and not much time to be fully healthy?

In a knockout tournament, these are the things that determine the championships. Ask Kansas, whose season ended without head coach Bill Self on the bench. Self underwent surgery last week to repair blocked arteries and has not yet been deemed fit to return.

Did his absence make a difference in a 72-71 loss to Arkansas? Probably. Again, the Razorbacks are emblematic of how little difference there is this season between most of these teams.

Arkansas probably has more players who will make a living in the NBA than Kansas, and yet they were a No. 8 seed because they suffered injuries and didn’t live up to their potential for much of it. of the season. Now healthy, why not Arkansas?

Or what about Tennessee, who spent much of the season shooting terribly but went nine threes to beat Duke on Saturday? The Vols are guarding like crazy, but they’re not among the top 50 teams in offensive metrics. What if they suddenly caught fire during a few matches?

Analysts love UConn, which gets St. Mary’s on Sunday for a chance to play Arkansas in Las Vegas next week.

Gonzaga and Baylor have the two best offensive numbers in the country but are mediocre in defense. UCLA’s defense is excellent, but its offense is sometimes suspect. Or maybe it’s the kind of tournament where a big player on an epic rip — like maybe Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, who apparently hasn’t missed a shot in two months — can lead a team. unlikely to a title.

The way this tournament usually works, first-round upsets clear the playing field a bit for true heavyweights. The Cinderellas have been grabbing all the attention for the past few days, but the favorites stand out by the Sweet 16.

But now it’s even hard to pinpoint who the favorites really are — especially when the two remaining No. 1 seeds have glaring health issues. If Sasser is wrong, the Cougars won’t win from now on. And while No. 1 seed Alabama got past Maryland on Saturday without too much drama, it’s clear star rookie Brandon Miller isn’t right. After recording zero points in the first round against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which the team attributed to a lingering groin problem, he still looked to be struggling against the Terrapins.

The injury vulnerabilities attached to the best players from the two top-ranked teams in the tournament make them far from locks to even make it to the Final Four.

UCLA, a No. 2 seed that should be favored to come out West with the Kansas loss, also has major injury issues. After losing top perimeter defenseman Jaylen Clark to injury late in the regular season, David Singleton suffered an apparent leg injury in the final minute of the Bruins’ win over Northwestern. How much more can UCLA handle?

It was yet another reminder of the fragility of hopes for all these teams. In a year where the differences are minimal at the top, every team that reaches the Sweet 16 will be able to win their next game. Nothing that happens from now on can be considered a huge surprise.

The greatness of March Madness is that anyone can beat anyone on any given day, which once again proved true when Fairleigh Dickinson shocked Purdue and became only the second seeded n No. 16 to knock down a No. 1.

But over the course of the tournament, marquee programs and elite players usually rise to the top. It doesn’t look like one of those years. Given the unique set of circumstances that have weakened top teams, we could end up with two or three teams in the Final Four, which seemed highly unlikely when the bracket came out.

For four months, college basketball felt like a sport with no defined hierarchy, setting up a tournament where anything could happen. So far he has delivered just at the right time.

Follow USA TODAY sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

USA Today

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