- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Welcome to the 2007 NCAA Tournament, otherwise known as the salvation for the most nondescript regular season in recent memory.
What are we supposed to remember this season for? The top five teams remained the same all year, yet there was no dominant team like a vintage Duke, UConn or UNLV. There was no run at the '76 Hoosiers, no miracle mid-major like Saint Joseph's. There was no separation by a pair of elites to set up a showdown like Illinois versus North Carolina in 2005, yet there were no real challengers from outside the top six or seven that could be taken seriously. There was a dearth of memorable games that didn't involve Texas. The best player on the current best team in the land played the entire season with one hand.
The best part of making it through four months of mostly unmemorable basketball? Those very traits that made the season forgettable could make for an unforgettable NCAA Tournament. We could have three top seeds make it to Atlanta, or we could have a repeat of last season, when the chalk broke into fine dust before the Final Four. With some 4-seeds looking no better than 7s and 8s, this March could be wild. Or not. That's the beauty of the current landscape.
Defending champion Florida understands. The Gators came from a 3-seed last season to win it all and now are trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to repeat. No champion has even returned to the title game since Kentucky in 1997. None of that history, though, means anything to Gators forward Joakim Noah.
"Last year, how many No. 1 seeds were in the Final Four?" Noah asked. "Favorites mean nothing. That means people are talking about you. It doesn't matter which teams are the favorites. A favorite could lose in the first round.
Maybe not the 1-seeds, but Noah's overall point is valid. Even though top seeds Florida, Kansas, North Carolina and Ohio State are considered the favorites, the regular season and conference tournaments showed us even the best teams are vulnerable.
Oral Roberts, the No. 14 seed in the East, beat West top-seed Kansas by seven points -- at fabled Allen Fieldhouse. Wright State, the No. 14 seed in the West, beat No. 5 seed Butler twice. Butler's opponent in the first round, No. 12 seed Old Dominion, won at No. 2 seed Georgetown. Texas Tech, a No. 10 seed, handed No. 3 seed Texas A&M a pair of losses during Big 12 conference play and also beat Kansas.
The poster child for this "anything can happen" tournament? Try Virginia Tech, the 5-seed in the West, which swept two games against North Carolina and won at Duke, but also lost three times to North Carolina State and suffered losses to MAC straggler Western Michigan (neutral site) and at Marshall, which just fired its coach.
"I think all you have to do is go back and look at last year, with ourselves, LSU, George Mason and UCLA in the Final Four," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think seedings, rankings or anything makes a difference. When you talk about upsets in conference tournaments, you need to go back into November and early December, when teams were playing outside of their conferences and there were upsets. There are upsets all the time, especially when you're playing a one-game deal.
"I don't look at it as one, two, three, four or five teams being ahead of the field," Donovan said. "In my opinion, anybody can get to Atlanta and anybody can win a national championship."
Just look at last week's major conference tournaments for more evidence. Each of the four lower seeds won its first-round game in the ACC. In the Pac-10, California, which finished its season with a losing record, upset top-seeded UCLA. A total of six games were decided in overtime in the ACC, Big East, Pac-10 and SEC tournaments, including two that went into double-overtime.
"I think it's unbelievably wide open," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "In 2005, Illinois had such a phenomenal year and deserved to be the odds-on pick, and we were right behind them. Last year, it was more open. I think there are 15 to 20 teams that have a tremendous chance to win the whole thing this year. I think you have to favor Florida, and then the other teams that have had a great, great year."
"Florida, right now, is a class above most teams," said Arkansas coach Stan Heath, whose Razorbacks lost to the Gators 77-56 in Sunday's championship game of the SEC tournament. "In this one-and-done scenario, anything could happen. You might have a bad shooting night or an injury could take place. But I do think they're the class of the field."
Only three weeks ago, the perceived class of the field was shaken. The Gators lost three of four games in late February, all on the road, before beating Kentucky and then sweeping through the SEC tournament, winning three times by an average of 19.7 points a game. Clearly, though, the Gators are not invincible.
The Tar Heels, Buckeyes and Jayhawks are close behind but, like Florida, each had their moments of struggle this season.
North Carolina lost three out of five games late in the regular season before it beat Duke and then went on to win ACC tournament. The Tar Heels also start three freshmen -- forward Brandan Wright and guards Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington -- so experience might be a concern.
Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament as the hottest team in the country, having won its last 17 games, but the Buckeyes rely on freshmen even more than the Tar Heels. Three of their top scorers -- center Greg Oden and guards Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook -- are first-years. There's also this score hanging over Ohio State's head: Florida 86, Ohio State 60 in Gainesville on Dec. 23.
"I think the one thing we've tried to do all year long is learn from wins, from losses, from close games, from big wins, and really build on it and try to exemplify through example of what we can learn from this," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "These guys, the thing I love about this team, is they have been phenomenal at listening and applying what we're trying to get done and how we're trying to do it. I wish I was a great coach, but these guys have done a tremendous job of listening and coming in every day and working hard."
Kansas coach Bill Self also hopes his team has learned from its mistakes in the past, especially consecutive losses in the NCAA Tournament. The Jayhawks were bounced in the first round in each of the last two NCAA tourneys, losing to No. 14 seed Bucknell 64-63 in 2005 and No. 13 seed Bradley 77-73 in 2006.
"The last two years have been miserable from an NCAA Tournament standpoint, from an offseason standpoint, and from exiting early," said Self, whose team faces the winner of the opening-round game between the MEAC's Florida A&M and Niagara from the MAAC.
"I will tell you this, this team had nothing to do with the Bucknell loss. Nothing. They didn't score one point in the game, nothing. I do think last year's team was not as prepared as this year's team and we were very young. Three freshmen and two sophomores starting and it was a different type of feel when we got into the tournament, and we played a team that was obviously very good."
Even if the top seeds hold serve in the early rounds (a No. 1 seed has never lost in the first round, and top seeds have won 34 of their 40 second-round games since 1997), there still figures to be a lot of unpredictability throughout the brackets. According to Gary Walters, Princeton athletic director and chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee, 104 Division I teams won more than 20 games this year (albeit with teams playing more regular-season games; the previous high was 78). The parity made seeding the field and distributing at-large bids even more arduous for the committee, and hints that there will be some pitfalls for the higher seeds early in the dance.
"Today you could lose in the first round," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "A No. 1 seed has the advantage. Take away the No. 1 seeds and anyone can lose."
It's telling that at some point this season a record 49 teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. And that a team like Butler, which beat tournament teams Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, Gonzaga and Purdue, couldn't win at Indiana State or Illinois-Chicago. And that Virginia, the No. 4 seed in the South Region, won 11 games in the ACC, but couldn't win at Wake Forest on the last Saturday of the regular season -- with the conference championship at stake.
Tournament games are the games that define seasons, for the fans and, just as important, for the players. Just ask Nick Fazekas, whose Nevada Wolf Pack get another chance as a favored seed this season (No. 7 in the South, drawn against Creighton) after being upset by 12th-seeded Montana last year in the first round.
"To this day, it burns," Fazekas said of that loss. "This tournament is very fragile, and you have to make the most of it."
We can only hope.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The reasons this was one of the least memorable regular seasons in recent years should be why the NCAA Tournament is so exciting, writes Mark Schlabach.