The NCAA tournament welcomes a diverse pool of teams, all chasing a spot in the Final Four and a chance to win the national championship.
College basketball's parity and its system of crowning a champion create a unique opportunity for the game's underdogs. There is no George Mason in college football's playoff or the NBA Finals. College basketball, however, sends invitations to dozens of teams like that.
That's where the silly talk begins. But getting into the tournament -- even winning a game or two -- is a different task compared with winning six games and standing on the last dais in San Antonio this year. Three 11-seeds have reached the Final Four, and a No. 8 Villanova team won the whole thing in 1985, the lowest seed of all time to secure a crown. But that's rare. Since the inception of the NCAA tournament in 1939, UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, Connecticut, Kansas and Louisville have claimed a combined 45 national titles. The other 343 Division I programs? Just 34.
The NCAA tournament belongs to the blue bloods.
Let's get real about who has a serious shot at the crown this season.
Legitimate national title contenders
On the road against a Xavier team projected by the selection committee to snag a 1-seed, Villanova connected on 11 of 19 3-pointers in the first half, most of them contested. But when the nation's most efficient offense grew cold Saturday, the Wildcats still made the hustle plays -- Eric Paschall's late steal, Mikal Bridges' jump shots, Collin Gillespie's fearless drives -- to win, despite the absence of injured standout Phil Booth. When the Wildcats play their best basketball, no team in America can touch them.
Doesn't matter if you think Virginia basketball is sexy or if you doubt the postseason effectiveness of the Cavs' efficient brand of basketball. Tony Bennett's program has held eight top-50 opponents on KenPom.com under 60 points this season. A Virginia team that has manufactured one of the greatest defensive efforts in modern college basketball history could win the school's first national title.
Remember when Kansas was set to end its streak of conference titles and miss history? Me either. No, this is not an invincible force in Lawrence, but Bill Self's four-guard lineup -- with Devonte' Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk connecting on more than 41 percent of their 3-point attempts and Udoka Azubuike leading the nation with a 77 percent clip inside the arc -- is a nightmare matchup for the field.
Duke Blue Devils
Stop with the nonsense. Duke needs a healthy Marvin Bagley III, who has missed three consecutive games, to fulfill its potential in the NCAA tournament. But its adjustments and three-game win streak without the lottery pick have showcased the talent behind him. Remember, this is the same Duke squad that beat Michigan State in the Champions Classic with Bagley on the court for just 10 minutes. Also, the last time a Duke team made a late-season switch to zone, Jahlil Okafor & Co. ended the year with a national title.
Michigan State Spartans
That Northwestern come-from-behind win produced the best and worst of a Michigan State team that sometimes needs to be reminded it's in a meaningful game. But these Spartans punk opponents on the offensive glass, play elite, top-10 defense, shoot the 3-ball better than any team in America, boast the services of a Wooden Award contender named Miles Bridges and use Jaren Jackson Jr., the field's most imposing threat as a 6-foot-11 lottery pick who has made 47 percent of his 3-pointers in league play.
The Boilermakers have connected on just 25 of 76 attempts from beyond the arc in their past four games, a tepid 1-3 stretch for a team that once won 19 consecutive games. They've been off in recent weeks, and now Vincent Edwards could miss the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury. But Matt Painter has a pair of 7-footers who stuff the paint and a collection of shooters who've made nearly 42 percent of their 3-point attempts, a wonderful formula for a title run.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Yes, the Tar Heels lost one of the top frontcourts in college basketball, a unit that anchored last season's run to the third national title in the Roy Williams era. But they're still securing nearly 40 percent of their missed shots. Luke Maye is an All-American. Cam Johnson, who has compiled seven consecutive double-digit performances, looks healthy and comfortable. And Joel Berry II has 18 assists and six turnovers during his team's five-game win streak. Seems like the Tar Heels have shifted into championship mode this month.
Mark Few's best teams have created matchup problems with their bigs. Przemek Karnowski was a 7-footer who could pass out of the post and neutralize double-teams, and Kelly Olynyk could spread the floor with his midrange game. With Johnathan Williams, Few has an agile, veteran big man who can defend multiple positions and Killian Tillie, a 6-10 forward from France, who has made 45 percent of his 3-point attempts in conference play. Rui Hachimura is a 6-8 mystery with an explosive style. Don't sleep on this Gonzaga squad.
Yeah, I have questions, too. The Deandre Ayton and Dusan Ristic lineups might not work against the small-ball threats Arizona must push away to reach Sean Miller's first Final Four and win the program's first national title since 1997. A run will also demand a consistent effort from Rawle Alkins, not a guarantee since his return from a foot injury, and a thorough defensive effort. But, Miller has Ayton, the most dominant talent in America. With Allonzo Trier and a fleet of good athletes around him, Ayton could go 2011-12 Anthony Davis on the field and carry these Wildcats to the crown, too.
Texas Tech Red Raiders
Please read the following disclaimer: All of this going forward depends on the status of Keenan Evans (18.2 PPG, 84 percent from the free throw line), who missed a chunk of Saturday's loss to Baylor with a toe injury. If he's not 100 percent, throw all of this in the trash. But Chris Beard has America's toughest team, a squad ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com. This is the Big 12's Virginia, and if Evans is healthy, the Red Raiders can run through the field and win a championship in nearby San Antonio.
Wichita State Shockers
On the road against a team slotted as the fifth seed overall in the selection committee's official projected seed announcement, Wichita State put together its most impactful performance of the season. The Shockers also showcased their depth against a strong Cincinnati squad that had won 39 consecutive home games. Eight players scored five or more points in the win. And Landry Shamet (19 points, 3-for-6 from the 3-point line) looked like a first-round pick. The defense is a concern, but the Shockers are capable of competing with the best teams in America.
Chris Mack doesn't want to see Villanova again this season. His Musketeers played great perimeter defense against the Wildcats on Saturday, but Jay Wright's program still made 16 3-pointers, a record for a Xavier opponent. But they've scored 90 or more points in 10 games this season. And they've made 54.5 percent of their shots inside the arc. Trevon Bluiett is capable of 30-plus against any opponent. No, Xavier won't lock teams up come March, but few teams will beat the Musketeers in a shootout.
You're probably wondering about ...
The Wildcats have the length and athleticism of past units, but they've failed to wade through the adverse situations the NCAA tournament will present. So you can't bet on this group, which has the Kentucky name but not the fervor of past crews.
An undersized Auburn team with a strength of schedule in the 60s just lost 6-7 forward Anfernee McLemore (7.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 39 percent from the 3-point line) for the year to a gruesome leg injury suffered in Saturday's loss to South Carolina. Plus, Bryce Brown has dealt with multiple injuries in recent weeks. Fair to question whether Bruce Pearl's team has the size and now depth to make a run.
West Virginia Mountaineers
The Bob Huggins brand works well when the Mountaineers force turnovers and convert those opportunities into offense. But they're 8-6 in league play because they've struggled to do that in the Big 12. They're not the same force without swarming opponents.
A team that registered 0.93 points per possession at Georgia on Saturday and made just 37 percent of its 2-pointers showcased the inconsistent offense that could end its postseason dreams early in the NCAA tournament.
It's easy to criticize Trae Young's recent stumbles. But opponents know that creating defensive schemes to stop him dramatically increases the chances of a win over a team ranked 95th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
The Wichita State loss exposed Cincinnati's lack of offensive creators.
Texas A&M Aggies
Too many times this season, Tyler Davis has been the only player on the roster fighting for a win. Hard to expect much from a group that couldn't top 60 points against Missouri and surrendered 94 points to Arkansas on Saturday.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes just crumbled in a lopsided loss to Penn State. But before that, they had lost the bulk of their challenges against the elite teams they'll have to defeat in the tournament to win a national tile.