This NCAA men’s tournament is up for grabs like never before

All season long, this promised to be the most open NCAA men’s tournament in a generation. The blue bloods weren’t that blue. The top teams had obvious flaws. The combination of an extra year of COVID for older players, a runaway transfer environment, and a group of freshmen largely unready for prime time meant teams’ fortunes were eroding from game to game, week to week, jo- Jo swayed.

Now here we are, 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 differently. If you’re still alive in this crazy tournament on Sunday night, dare to dream. Even you, Princeton. This is really available.

A sport with small sample sizes and microscopic margins has turned into a roulette wheel full of possibilities likely to be determined by health, random hits and maybe pure luck over the next two weeks.

For a moment Saturday, it seemed Houston could be the third No. 1 seed to fall straight out of the bracket in the first weekend after Purdue and Kansas. Instead, the Cougars came 10 points down at halftime and eventually prevailed to end Auburn’s angry bid 81-64.

Marcus Sasser (left) and Jamal Shead play for No. 1 Houston with injuries.

Marcus Sasser (left) and Jamal Shead play for No. 1 Houston with injuries.

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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 played Auburn and Sasser in particular looked like himself with 22 points in 31 minutes. Can that last for four more games and not much time to fully recover?

In a single-elimination tournament, these are the things that make championships. Just ask Kansas, whose season ended without head coach Bill Self on the bench. Self had a procedure to repair clogged arteries last week and has not yet been deemed ready to return.

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

Arkansas likely has more players who will make a living in the NBA than Kansas, and yet they were seeded 8th because they were dealing with injuries and underperformed for much of the season. Well now, why not Arkansas?

Or what about Tennessee, who spent much of the season shooting terribly but hit nine threes on Saturday to beat red-hot Duke? The Vols are guarding like crazy, but they’re not in the top 50 teams in offensive metrics. What if they suddenly catch fire for a few games?

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

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 suspect at times. Or maybe this is the kind of tournament where a great player with an epic rift — like maybe Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, who hasn’t seemed to miss a shot in two months — can lead an unlikely team to a title.

The way this tournament usually works, the surprises in the early round clear the field a bit for the real heavyweights. The Cinderellas get all the attention for a few days, but the favorites emerge through the Sweet 16.

But now it’s hard to see who the favorites really are – especially when the two remaining #1 seeds have some obvious health issues. Unless Sasser is right, the Cougars will not win from this point forward. And while Alabama, the No. 1-seeded Alabama, slipped past Maryland on Saturday without too much drama, it’s clear that star newcomer Brandon Miller is wrong. After scoring zero points in the first round against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which the team blamed on an ongoing groin problem, he seemed still struggling against the Terrapins.

The injury susceptibility of the top players from the tournament’s top two-ranked teams puts them far from even reaching the Final Four.

UCLA, a No. 2 that should be favored to come out west with Kansas’ loss, also has major injury woes. 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 longer can UCLA take?

It was another reminder of how fragile hopes are for all these teams. In a year where differences at the top are minimal, any team that makes the Sweet 16 will be able to win their next game. Nothing that happens from now on can be taken as a big surprise.

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

But as the tournament progresses, the big-name programs and elite players usually rise to the top. This doesn’t look like one of those years. Given the unique circumstances that have weakened the 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 the past four months, college basketball has looked like a sport with no defined hierarchy, representing a tournament where anything could happen. So far it has delivered exactly on demand.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanClouds

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: The NCAA men’s tournament is up for grabs like never before


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