March Madness came early in the upside-down college hoops season
By AARON BEARD
AP Basketball Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — Everything seemed set for a season of college basketball marked by the familiar — until the season, anyway.
There was North Carolina returning four starters from a mad rush in last year’s NCAA Championship Game to open at No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll. The fellow Kentucky Bluebloods, defending champion Kansas and Duke were near the top. Instead, they crashed to bring us here: the final weekend of the season with a decidedly unexpected Final Four.
So what happened? A bad episode of faulty projection? A change in the sport itself? March Madness is coming early?
“I think obviously between the transfer portal, the extra COVID year and NIL, it’s created a lot of opportunities, I think, for parity,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said this week, “where brand isn’t as important when there’s so much inventory in terms of players, and they can move around freely, and they’re old and good.
The Huskies are the headliners in Houston, both as a four-time national champion and as a team rushing into the weekend after dispatching tournament foes with ruthless efficiency. It’s also a team that was unranked in preseason, lost six of eight mid-season, and was seeded 4th for the NCAA Tournament ahead of San Diego State (5), Miami (5) and Florida Atlantic (9).
Of that quartet, only San Diego State (19th) was ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. It’s only the second time since the tournament’s expansion to 64 teams in 1985 that three teams have gone from unseeded in the preseason to reaching the Final Four, the other coming in 2006 with eventual champion Florida , LSU and George Mason’s team led by current Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga.
“I always say with the NCAA tournament, if you were to start with the exact same brackets and start it today, we would have four different teams in the Final Four,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said. “I mean, it’s a tough event to win, and it’s almost a perfect storm scenario.”
Maybe so, but this season’s journey is about the headlining teams that didn’t make it here too.
Take UNC. His riveting run last year included an epic Final Four victory over Duke in the NCAA’s first meeting between the fierce rivals which also marked the farewell of outgoing Blue Devils Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. But this year’s squad seemed weighed down by expectations and became the first team to go from pre-season No. 1 to miss the tournament since expanding in 1985.
Yet it goes further.
Three other preseason top-10 teams (Kentucky, Creighton, and Arkansas) finished unranked. Two others (Baylor and Duke) spent at least a week wandering among the “others receiving votes”. Three teams ended up moving from unseeded to top 10 in the final poll, including Purdue – who became the second No. 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed – and Marquette joining UConn.
In comparison, only two teams went from pre-season top 10 to unranked at any time last year in the first full season with the transfer portal, while one (Arizona) finished in the top. 10 after opening the year without a ranking.
In all, four teams held the No. 1 ranking this year, including Houston, Alabama and Purdue. None have given off the whiff of a potential juggernaut like 2021 champions Baylor and Gonzaga combining for three losses this season.
“Throughout the season, the No. 1s were losing, the rankings were constantly changing,” San Diego State senior guard Jared Barnett said Thursday. “So we always felt we had a chance.”
Joel Berry II, the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player of 2017 during UNC’s title run, is hit with those swings.
He’ll never forget the last Final Four in Houston: He was on the court in 2016 for the Tar Heels when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a last-second 3-pointer for the title. That crushing moment was the driving force when the Tar Heels returned a year later to claim the title that had eluded them.
Now, he thinks those redemption arcs are harder to complete with the transfer portal offering the equivalent of college free agency as a landscape-altering variable.
“Schools like North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova, Duke, these teams can’t just bring in (high school) All-Americans anymore,” said Berry, now an ACC Network analyst. “These other teams have All-Americans who went to school and maybe it didn’t work out. Now they’re moving to other places where they have better opportunities.
It was also a popular take among players in the locker room at Houston’s NRG Stadium, with many mentioning the gate when asked if the season was more open.
“You don’t have to sit now, so people change schools every time,” said Florida Atlantic guard Jalen Gaffney, who transferred from UConn. “So I guess a lot of players, a lot of teams are just coming out right now.”
And listening to them is both welcome and a sign of what awaits us.
“The high-level guys could bounce back and go into some of these low and middle levels and really transform a program,” said UConn guard Joey Calcaterra, a grad transfer from San Diego.
“It’s just cool to see the different types of teams that could come in the big moments. It’s not always what you’ve expected in recent years.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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