NCAA: Expect the unexpected


Matthew Conway, Sports Editor

Words are commonly tossed around to describe the college basketball season, but one used more than ever this season is: parity. No true national title contender has emerged, but several teams have a chance to win it all. Duke, Gonzaga, and Kansas are the front runners at the moment. Other programs such as Baylor, Dayton, Florida State, and San Diego State, which lack the historical credibility of blue bloods like Duke and Kansas, have been among the sport’s elite all year.

The NCAA tournament is always wild, but the chaos seems like it may be amplified this year.

There are no eye-popping talents like Duke’s Zion Williamson or Murray State’s Ja Morant, but there are a few National Player of the Year candidates to keep an eye out for in Dayton’s Obi Toppin, Iowa’s Luka Garza, and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr.

Here are some of the key stories I’ve been looking at this year.


Potential for mid major upsets

One of the most thrilling aspects of the NCAA tournament is the unpredictability and the upsets. Some mid major squads which could steal a first round win are East Tennessee State (Southern Conference), Northern Iowa (Missouri Valley Conference), Vermont (America East) and Yale (Ivy League).

Vermont’s Anthony Lamb is one of the country’s top players. He has positioned the Catamounts, who have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in two of the past three years, for a bid this year.

Furman is battling East Tennessee State and UNC Greensboro for the Southern Conference regular season title. Any one of those three teams will be a dangerous opponent for an unsuspecting low seed. ETSU defeated LSU on the road and UNCG beat Georgetown on the road earlier this season.

Northern Iowa won games in the tournament in both 2015 and 2016 and has been the MVC’s clear-cut best team this year. The Panthers are poised to land somewhere in the 10-12 seed range.

Yale is not as talented as last year, when it pushed LSU to the brink in the first round, but still has a chance to win the Ivy League and pose a threat to a top seed.

Teams with sub-.500 conference records may make the tournament. Arkansas, Minnesota, and Purdue fall into this category. Many mid major squads like Akron, Liberty and New Mexico State are chomping at the bit to pull an upset over a mediocre team from a power conference.


North Carolina’s fall from grace

A shocking element to this season has been the collapse of the North Carolina Tar Heels. As of this writing, UNC is 11-17, dead last in the ACC, and coming off a trio of heart-wrenching losses to bitter rival Duke and conference rivals Notre Dame and Virginia.

This is the Tar Heels’ second-worst season of the 17-year Roy Williams era. The six-time national champions are on pace to finish with their fewest wins since 2009-10, the only season under Williams that they missed the NCAA Tournament.

North Carolina can attribute its underachievement to a myriad of causes.

Injuries have ravaged the Heels, as superstar freshman guard Cole Anthony has missed 11 games due to a knee injury and fellow freshman Anthony Harris has only played in five games all year.

The Heels’ transfers have not been as productive as anticipated. Guard Christian Keeling and forward Justin Pierce were supposed to provide balance and stability alongside Anthony. Keeling and Pierce have been underwhelming, and more of the scoring burden has fallen on big man Garrison Brooks and freshman Armando Bacot.


The Big Ten’s depth

The Big Ten is on pace to place 11 of its 14 teams in the tournament. Only Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern would miss out.

In contrast to North Carolina’s underwhelming season, three Big Ten programs have enjoyed their best seasons in years.

Illinois, Penn State and Rutgers would all make the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today. The Illini are a successful program historically, with 1,802 all time wins, but have fallen on tough times in recent years, with zero tournament appearances since 2013. Penn State has made the tournament four times since 1965 and nine times since 1941. For comparison, North Carolina has made the tournament 50 times since 1941. Rutgers has not made the tournament since 1991. These programs are navigating uncharted territory.

The Maryland Terrapins have a chance to win the Big Ten for the first time since joining the conference in 2014. It seems to be the same story every season, with Maryland posting a gaudy record through three months of the season before reaching the Big Ten gauntlet in February and faltering. The Terps’ record during February over the past four years is 14-14, despite the fact that they’ve made three tournament appearances in that span.

But this year may be different. Maryland is poised to make its deepest NCAA tournament run since winning the national title in 2002. A group of talented, experienced guards leads the way, spearheaded by senior Anthony Cowan Jr. Junior Darryl Morsell and sophomores Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala provide depth. Big man Jalen Smith, averaging 15.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, could be an All-American.


Seed projections

Seton Hall aims to land a low single-digit seed in the East Regional, where they would be able to play the first two rounds in nearby Albany before moving to Madison Square Garden for the Regional Semifinals and Regional Finals.

San Diego State aims to recover from its first loss of the season and earn the No. 2 seed in the West Regional, which would be played in Los Angeles. The Aztecs’ primary competition in the West is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are coming off a tough road loss to a suddenly exciting BYU team.

The NCAA tournament is truly anyone’s to win. There have been seven No. 1 teams this season: Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, Louisville, Kansas, Gonzaga, and Baylor. Any of them could win the national title, but the programs with the highest likelihood at the moment are Gonzaga and Kansas. These teams are experienced and have been to the championship game before, whereas up and comers like San Diego State and Dayton are in unfamiliar territory.

March Madness will be a thrill a minute for us fans. The countdown begins now – only 18 days until Selection Sunday!