Commentary

Wild season leaves everyone vulnerable

Originally Published: March 16, 2009
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Louisville couldn't beat Western Kentucky in late November, but the Cardinals were still champions of arguably the deepest conference of the past decade, winning the Big East regular-season and tournament titles.

Syracuse couldn't beat Cleveland State at home in mid-December, but the Orange produced two of the most inspiring victories in recent college basketball history, beating Connecticut in six overtimes and West Virginia in overtime the very next night to reach the final of the Big East tournament.

And Southern California, which won once in the entire month of February, beat tourney-bound Cal, UCLA and Arizona State in consecutive days to win the Pac-10 tournament and earn an NCAA ticket that it almost certainly didn't have before the weekend.

Was college basketball's topsy-turvy regular season -- and its even less predictable conference tournaments -- a prelude of things to come in the NCAA tournament? Or will the teams that were perceived to be the sport's best finally rise to the top, after the No. 1 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll changed hands a record eight times this season?

[+] EnlargeWake - Duke
Bob Donnan/US PresswireDuke's reign at No. 1 lasted a single week after losing to Wake Forest, a team that had its brief stay at No. 1 end a week before.

If you believe the coaches of many of the sport's best teams, strap yourself down. The next three weeks might be one heck of a ride as we make our way to the Final Four in Detroit.

"Nobody's looked unbeatable, if that's your question to me," said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans won the Big Ten regular-season championship by a whopping four games over their closest competitor but then didn't even make the finals of the league tournament in Indianapolis. "Nationwide, I think parity is here to stay. I think it is. I think anybody can beat anybody on a given night."

Heading into this week's opening rounds of the NCAA tournament, three of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament hardly look as intimidating as top-line teams of the recent past. Connecticut, the No. 1 seed in the West Region, lost each of its past two games. Pittsburgh, the No. 1 seed in the East, lost to West Virginia by 14 points the last time it took the court.

And North Carolina, which held the No. 1 ranking for the first eight weeks of the season, lost to Florida State 73-70 in the ACC tournament semifinals. The Tar Heels played two games in Atlanta's Georgia Dome without injured point guard Ty Lawson, who is expected to return before UNC plays No. 16-seed Radford in Thursday's first-round game in Greensboro, N.C.

Only Louisville, the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed, seems to be firing on all cylinders. But it wasn't too long ago that Cardinals coach Rick Pitino had to be questioning his team's Final Four chances. Along with losing to the Hilltoppers by 14, Louisville dropped games to Minnesota and UNLV in late December and was walloped by 33 at Notre Dame on Feb. 12. Ten days before the blowout in South Bend, the Cards were run out of Freedom Hall by UConn in a 17-point loss.

The tournament's No. 2 seeds go into the NCAAs with flaws, as well. Michigan State, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest, was less than impressive down the stretch, then lost to Ohio State 82-70 in the Big Ten semifinals. Earlier this season, the Spartans lost to Northwestern and Penn State at home.

Duke, the No. 2 seed in the East, lost three times in February, including a 27-point defeat at Clemson, its worst loss in nearly 20 years. Oklahoma, the No. 2 seed in the South, looked like a No. 1 -- and possibly the best team in the country -- until All-American forward Blake Griffin suffered a concussion in a 73-68 loss at Texas on Feb. 21. The Sooners lost four of their past six games.

Memphis, the No. 2 seed in the West, argued it deserved a No. 1 after winning its last 25 games, the longest winning streak any team has taken into the tourney since 1999. But 19 of the Tigers' 31 victories came in Conference USA, where they've finished unbeaten three straight seasons and have won 61 consecutive games. Critics suggest Memphis' gaudy record is the result of playing in a watered-down conference.

"We probably spent more time seeding this year than we have in my five years on the committee," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive, chairman of the NCAA selection committee. "And a lot of that time was spent dealing with the first two lines. Every team has positives and negatives."

Slive's work was less arduous last season, when No. 1 seeds North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA rose to the top of the national rankings in February and never looked back. The top four seeds each had fewer than four losses entering the 2008 NCAA tournament. Memphis (31-3) is the only team in this year's 65-team field with that few.

"If there's one thing that's been obvious about this season, it's that there are a number of quality teams playing," Slive said. "Just looking at the coaches and media polls throughout the season, we have seen a revolving door, not only at the top but throughout the top 25. What that means is there are many good teams capable of beating other good teams, and that's going to make the tournament as exciting as ever."

[+] EnlargeTy Lawson
Peyton Williams/Icon SMIThere has been no Carolina coronation. The Heels might yet win it all, but there have been signs of vulnerability.

It's easy to forget now, but this season wasn't supposed to be this way. North Carolina opened the season ranked No. 1 in the national polls and held the top ranking for the first eight weeks. The next 11 weeks were supposed to be nothing but a Tar Heels coronation.

But there were signs of trouble for North Carolina from the start. All-American forward Tyler Hansbrough was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his right shin in the preseason. He also bruised his left ankle and missed four games.

Promising freshman forward Tyler Zeller broke his wrist after falling to the floor in the opening week and didn't return until mid-February. Senior forward Marcus Ginyard, the team's best perimeter defender and one of its emotional leaders, played only three games before he was sidelined the rest of the way with a foot injury.

North Carolina lost its first two ACC games for the first time since it started 0-3 in 1996-97. But the Tar Heels have lost only twice since.

"It wasn't unfair [to put us high] because we were in the Final Four and everyone was coming back and there was a lot expected of us," Lawson told ESPN's Andy Katz earlier this month. "The way the media portrayed us was that we were a giant and we wouldn't lose a game. That's tough to stand up to. We did our best, and we still won the ACC championship."

If Lawson returns and is healthy, the Tar Heels might still be the team to beat because of their experience and balance.

"I think you look, and if you truly studied it, one of the biggest things that's probably been a little bit different in our league -- and ironically it's our school -- is guys have left early," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "You can go down to Chapel Hill in the ACC, and guys, Hansbrough stuck around for four years -- those guys have been in there."

But North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who led the Tar Heels to the 2005 national championship, knows his team will have to earn a national championship in the next three weeks.

"We've had some really, really good ones, but we've had some slip-ups, as well," Williams said.

Just like the other 64 teams in the NCAA field.

Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

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