All season long, this promised to be the most wide-open NCAA men’s tournament in a generation. The bluebloods weren't as 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 crop of freshmen that largely weren’t ready for prime time meant teams’ fortunes yo-yoed from game to game, week to week.
Now here we are, nearly done with the first weekend of March Madness, and there’s an important question to ask: Who is going to win the national championship?
Maybe it would be better to say it another way. If you’re still alive by Sunday night in this crazy tournament, go ahead and dare to dream. Even you, Princeton. It’s truly that 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 shotmaking and perhaps sheer luck.
For a moment Saturday, it appeared that Houston might be the third No. 1 seed to fall on the first weekend, following Purdue and Kansas right out of the bracket. Instead, the Cougars came from 10 points behind at halftime and eventually asserted themselves to shut down Auburn’s upset bid, 81-64.
But it’s clear Houston’s championship chances are as fragile as the injured muscles in Marcus Sasser’s groin and Jamal Shead’s knee. Both of them played against Auburn, and Sasser in particular looked like himself with 22 points in 31 minutes. Can that hold for four more games and not much time to get fully healthy?
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In a single-elimination tournament, these are the things that determine championships. Just ask Kansas, whose season ended without head coach Bill Self on the bench. Self had a procedure last week to fix blocked arteries and wasn’t deemed fit to return yet.
Did his absence make a difference in a 72-71 loss to Arkansas? Probably. Then 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 earn a living in the NBA than Kansas, and yet they were a No. 8 seed because they dealt with injuries and didn’t play up to their potential for much of the season. Now healthy, why not Arkansas?
Or what about Tennessee, which spent much of the season shooting terribly but made nine threes to beat red-hot Duke on Saturday? The Vols guard like crazy, but they’re not among the top-50 teams in the offensive metrics. What if they suddenly catch fire for a few games?
The analytics love UConn, which gets St. Mary’s on Sunday for a chance to face Arkansas out in Las Vegas next week.
Gonzaga and Baylor have the two best offensive numbers in the country but are mediocre on defense. UCLA’s defense is great, but its offense is sometimes suspect. Or perhaps this is the kind of tournament where one great player on an epic tear — like maybe Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, who seemingly hasn’t missed a shot in two months — can carry an unlikely team to a title.
The way this tournament typically works, the early-round upsets clear the field a bit for the true heavyweights. The Cinderellas get all the attention for a few days, but the favorites emerge by the Sweet 16.
But now, it’s hard to even identify who the favorites really are — especially when the two remaining No. 1 seeds have some glaring health issues. If Sasser isn’t right, the Cougars aren’t going to win from this point forward. And while overall No. 1 seed Alabama advanced past Maryland on Saturday without too much drama, it’s clear that star freshman Brandon Miller isn’t right. After recording zero points in the first round against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which the team attributed to an ongoing groin issue, he appeared to still be struggling against the Terrapins.
The injury vulnerabilities attached to the best players on the two top-ranked teams in the tournament make them far from locks to even get to the Final Four.
UCLA, a No. 2 seed that should be favored to come out of the West with Kansas’ loss, also has major injury issues. After losing its top perimeter defender Jaylen Clark to injury late in the regular season, David Singleton went down with an apparent leg injury in the closing minute of the Bruins’ win over Northwestern. How much more can UCLA withstand?
It was yet another reminder of how fragile the hopes are for all of these teams. In a year when the differences are minimal at the top, every team that gets to the Sweet 16 will be capable of winning its next game. Nothing that happens from here on out can be considered a huge surprise.
The greatness of March Madness is that anyone can beat anyone on a given day, which was proven true once again when Fairleigh Dickinson shocked Purdue and became just the second No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1.
But over the course of the tournament, the big-name programs and elite players usually rise to the top. This doesn’t look like one of those years. Given the unique set of circumstances that have weakened the top teams, we could end up with two or three teams in the Final Four that seemed highly unlikely when the bracket came out.
For the last four months, college basketball looked like a sport without a defined hierarchy, setting up a tournament where anything could happen. So far, it has delivered right on cue.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA men's tournament is up for grabs like never before