Raise your hand if you figured either Connecticut or Butler would be playing for the national championship before the season began.
No hands? No one saw this coming?
It’s not that surprising, really. And it fits the way this season has gone and how many saw the season as it evolved, which is something college basketball fans should be happy about. That is especially true for those who are simply fans of the game.
There have been a lot of years where analysts all over say that the NCAA Tournament should be wide open. We’ve said that picking a Final Four would be difficult, and that’s certainly true before we know the NCAA Tournament field because no one knows what the matchups will be. Even when the field is announced, many of us have said it’s hard to predict the Final Four.
But even in many of these seasons, there are often just a handful of teams that many feel can win a national championship. Stories are written talking about teams that can win it all, and some mention a number in passing – “there are eight teams that could win it all” and similar quotes can be found often enough. And in the end, amidst all the talk of the gap closing between mid-majors and BCS conference schools and all the parity, invariably we would have familiar faces in the Final Four just about every year. Since 1985, at least one of Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina or UCLA has been in the Final Four.
This season, we heard a lot of the same talk. We heard about parity often, as usual, although a better word is “evenness” since there’s not a whole lot of difference. More so than any season I can remember, the seedings in the NCAA Tournament don’t mean a whole lot this year. There wasn’t a dominant team in college basketball, just a lot of good and some very good teams, along with a large number of mediocre teams. Florida State, No. 10 seed, knocked off Notre Dame, a No. 2 seed, in the second round. Frankly, there wasn’t a big difference between the two teams. It’s not as if it was a matchup of an NBA team against a top-tier college team. So none of the results thus far should shock anyone.
For once, this season the race for the national championship appeared wide open. Defending champion Duke entered the season as perhaps a prohibitive favorite to win in some eyes, but the Blue Devils were vulnerable often and went out in the regional semifinals. If there was a team that looked like the favorite coming into the NCAA Tournament, it was Ohio State – but the Buckeyes were far from heavy or even prohibitive favorites. And maybe Butler’s run to the national championship game last season had something to do with it, but this time around there wasn’t a lot of talk about how only a handful of teams could win it all.
For once, this season the feeling that there wasn’t much difference between a lot of teams is proving to be true. We’ve seen it in all of the results, from upsets based on seeding to close games. We’ve seen it in teams that have advanced far. We’ve seen the city of Richmond, hardly a basketball hotbed, have two teams reach the Sweet 16.
Now on Monday night, we have a matchup of Butler and Connecticut. The Bulldogs were in this game last year, but weren’t expected to duplicate this. It was thought to be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, in part because of the loss of Gordon Hayward to the NBA. And at one point, the Bulldogs looked like they might not be an NCAA Tournament team at all. The Huskies, meanwhile, were picked 10th in the Big East preseason poll and finished ninth in the regular season. While Connecticut is a national power and has won two national championships, this didn’t shape up to be one of their best teams.
But this season has been one where the action has followed the talk. Two mid-major schools reached the Final Four, and one is in the title game. The two high-major schools who made it weren’t supposed to be here; both were thought to be at least a year away from having a team that could make such a run. But they won their way to Houston.
For once, college basketball truly has been wide open. Anyone could win it all this season. The national championship will be won by an unexpected team, a team no one would have picked to be in this game in October or on January 1, and one that few might have picked on March 14. For that, we can and should all be happy.