Each year, the country is drawn to the insanity of the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. From the casual sports fan to the current student to the crazy alum, each is drawn to the games in a winner-take-all tournament. Everyone knows the big names: Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, North Carolina, and UCLA, but this year there is no clear cut favorite. Due to this, the 2016 tournament is poised to be one hell of a ride.
The casual fan in America probably hates the idea that there is no clear favorite entering the tournament. He or she wants a dominant #1 so they can win the office pool or some bets in Vegas. As an avid college basketball fan, I love this. Why? Because of one reason and one reason alone, the chaos. It makes it so much more entertaining that a small school can upset a traditional powerhouse in this year’s tournament. Think of the years where teams such as George Mason, Davidson, Florida Gulf Coast, or VCU went on runs. It creates better stories, and the nation does seem to be much more interested if there’s potential for a Cinderella Story to make it all the way.
We all know everyone loves filling out brackets. People pick the games and hope against hope that they can get that perfect bracket, along with the fat prize check that comes with it. There are all types of strategies for picking: which mascot would win in a fight? I like the color blue instead of red. That team has cool bench celebrations. That senior looks pretty cute. (Looking at you, Ryan Arcidiacono) This year, you probably can keep whatever strategy you’ve been using the past 17 years and you might turn into a genius, and a millionaire. If you don’t have any slightly insane methods for picking the games, well, you might want to get on it. This tournament is wide open.
Why is this tournament such a crapshoot? There are several reasons. First, top ranked teams have been taking losses like crazy. Just this week, 8 of the top 10 teams lost. That is insane! If you take a look at the rankings this year, the recurring theme has been the number one ranked team staying in that spot for two or three weeks and then dropping due to a loss or losses. The longest a team has been ranked #1 in the AP Poll was Michigan State. They held that honor for four weeks earlier in the season. The rest of the season, the #1 ranked team has held for three weeks or less. In fact, this even carries over to the Top 10. Teams make it into the Top 10 and lose a game or two and subsequently drop. That is not supposed to happen, and we are a week from the conference tournaments! One has to believe the upsets are just beginning, and that the the 64th ranked team has just as good of an opportunity to win the tournament as the Number 1.
Another reason for this unpredictable year is the “one and done” rule. College basketball has been and is becoming a one-year pit stop on some star players’ roads to the NBA. These players don’t care about going to class, and they don’t care about the team. They care about getting through that one year of college, and then being on their way to the draft and to being a professional. It’s hard to blame them; if I had their talent, I would probably take that route too. The NCAA can fix this, but they choose not to, and as a result, many players jump to the NBA or overseas prematurely. College basketball is about developing as a player, and most of these guys are still pretty raw after their one-year. Coaches can work with them to encourage them to work as part of a team, teach them how to handle adversity, and how to improve their game. By leaving early, players are depriving themselves of these experiences, and America of the opportunity to see a game with higher teamwork and chemistry.
The third big reason for inconsistency in top teams’ play is the lack of talent of some of the “top freshmen.” Every year, we see the McDonald’s All Americans who are going to take the college basketball world by storm. This year, there are two top freshmen, and then everyone else. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are the top two freshmen in college basketball this year. They have so much talent that they are projected as the number 1 and 2 picks in most NBA mock drafts, but there aren’t many freshman players close behind them. Even so, both aren’t accomplishing as much as you would expect of players of their caliber in college. Ben Simmons, for example, is the best player in the country, yet his team, LSU, may not even make it to the tournament!
Also an issue this season is poor play on the road. It would seem that during conference play, teams are having a difficult team dealing with the adversity that comes with playing on road, mainly from being out of their element and dealing with deafening noise from fans. We’ve seen normally tightly coached teams become prone to dumb mistakes, which wind up being costly if the home team can capitalize. High emotion rivalries are also huge, and this year is no different. Higher ranked teams come into a rivalry building with a target on their back, and can end up dropping the game if they aren’t composed and smart with the basketball. This can come into play during the tournament as teams are playing far away from their campuses, and have to deal with travel after every couple rounds.
The final big reason for the inconsistency this year is injuries. I know every team is going to experience nicks and bruises throughout the season, but it seems that a lot of players have been hurt and have been out for a long period of time, and other players haven’t stepped up. Some teams put all their eggs in one basket with their star, and when that player goes down, the team is left scrambling. If you look at any team, you can find a top player who was, or is, currently hurt. I know injuries happen, but teams not being prepared and the lack of that player bouncing back has definitely damaged their seasons, and may continue to affect them in the tournament.
“The Tourney” is probably my favorite event to watch. I am locked and loaded from opening tip until the final score. I won’t give you my answer for who I think will win this tournament, as it is only March 1, and there is still plenty that can happen, but I firmly believe this tournament will keep up with the overarching season theme of extreme volatility. There will be upsets. Top programs will fall. Cinderella’s will be born. So get your best bracket picking strategy ready, because it might actually pay off this time around.
Let the chaos begin!