March Madness came early in the mad college hoop season

HOUSTON (AP) — Everything seemed set for a college basketball season marked by familiarity — at least up until the season.

There was North Carolina, which brought four starters back from a wild ride to last year’s NCAA championship game open at #1 in the Associated Press preseason poll. Fellow Bluebloods Kentucky, reigning champion Kansas and Duke were close at the top. Instead, they rushed off to bring us here: the final weekend of the season, with a decidedly unexpected result last four.

So what happened? A bad bout of faulty projection? A shift in the sport itself? March madness arriving early?

“I think obviously between the transfer portal, the extra COVID year and NIL, that created a lot of opportunities, I think, for parity,” Connecticut coach Dan Hurley said this week, “where the brand isn’t quite that important if it’s.” so there is a lot of inventory in relation to the players and they can move around freely. And they are old and good.”

The Huskies are headlining Houston, both as a four-time national champions and as a team racing into the weekend after taking down tournament opponents with ruthless efficiency. They are also a team that was unranked preseason, losing six of eight midseason and seeded four 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 Preseason AP Top 25. This is only the second time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that three teams were unranked and made the Final Four in the preseason, the other coming in 2006 with eventual champion Florida, LSU and the team by George Mason, led by current Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga.

“I always say if you started at the NCAA tournament with the exact same brackets and you started it today, we’d have four different teams in the Final Four,” Aztec coach Brian Dutcher said. “I mean, this event is tough to win and it’s almost a perfect storm scenario.”

Maybe so, but this season’s journey also revolves around the headlining teams that didn’t make it here.

Take UNC. Including his gripping run last year an epic Final Four win over Duke in the first NCAA meeting between the bitter rivals, which also marked the farewell for retired Blue Devils Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. But this year’s team looked weighed down with expectations and became the first team to go from preseason No. 1 to missing the tournament since its 1985 expansion.

But it goes on.

Three Other Preseason Top 10 Teams ( Kentucky, Creighton and Arkansas) was finished unranked. Two others (Baylor and Duke) spent at least a week wandering among the “Others Getting Votes.” In the end, three unranked teams made it into the top 10 in the final pollincluding Purdue — This was the second No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed — and Marquette joining UConn.

In comparison, last year during the first full season on the transfer portal, only two teams slipped from the preseason top 10 to an unranked spot, while one (Arizona) finished in the top 10 after starting the year unranked.

Overall, four teams held the No. 1 ranking that year, including Houston, Alabama and Purdue. None smelled like a potential juggernaut like 2021 champions Baylor and Gonzaga, who have had three losses this season.

“Throughout the season, the No. 1s lost, the rankings kept changing,” San Diego State senior guard Jared Barnett said Thursday. “That’s why we always felt like we had a chance.”

Joel Berry II, the 2017 Final Four’s standout player during the UNC title run, is affected by these swings.

He will never forget the last Final Four in Houston: He stood on the court for the Tar Heels in 2016 when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a last-second 3-pointer for the title. That crushing moment was the driving force as the Tar Heels returned a year later to claim the title they had eluded them.

Now, he finds that those redemption arcs are more difficult to complete as the transfer portal offers the equivalent of college free agency as a landscape-changing variable.

“Schools like North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova, Duke, these teams are getting sick of just inviting (high school) All-Americans,” said Berry, now an analyst at ACC Network. “These other teams have All-Americans that 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 the players in the locker rooms at NRG Stadium in Houston, and several mentioned the portal when asked if the season was feeling more open.

“They don’t have to sit out now, so people are always changing schools,” said Florida Atlantic Guard Jalen Gaffney, who switched point from UConn.

And listening to them is both welcome and a sign of what lies ahead.

“High major guys could pick themselves up and move to some of these low and mid majors and really flip a program,” said UConn guard Joey Calcaterra, a graduate transferee from San Diego.

“It’s just cool to see the different types of teams that can step up in big moments. It’s not always what you expect, like in previous years.”


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