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Mike Lopresti | | March 17, 2014

Lopresti: Ten storylines for the first week of March Madness


Now we have the road map, from 34-0 Wichita State to 13-19 Cal Poly. Now, finally, we get some answers.

The regular college basketball season gave us an extraordinary case of the zig-zags, from coast to coast.

Syracuse went from 25-0 to losing five of seven.

Kentucky went from preseason No. 1, to losing four of seven SEC games, to nearly winning the SEC tournament championship – against the No. 1 team.

In the Big Ten, Wisconsin went from 16-0 to losing five of six, then winning 11 in a row. Ohio State from 15-0 to losing five of six. Michigan State from 18-1 to losing seven of 12 to winning the Big Ten tournament by an average of nearly 13 points a game.

Iowa State lost four of five games, then stormed to the Big 12 tournament championship. Oklahoma State started 16-3, dropped seven in a row, then won five of seven. Oregon started 13-0, lost eight of 10, then won eight of nine. Saint Louis went from 25-2 to losing four of its last five, Arizona from 21-0 and No. 1 to losing four of the next 13.

“We weren’t the only ones by far,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said of how his team faded in and out like AM radio. “Look across the country. I have never seen it like that.”

Conference tournament week confirmed the volatility of the season.  Iowa State won the Big 12 tournament for the first time in 14 years, Saint Joseph’s the Atlantic 10 for the first time in 17, Virginia the ACC for the first time in 38 years. Big East winner Providence had not won a league tournament since 1974, and MEAC champion North Carolina Central not since 1950.

Remember that glittering doubleheader in Chicago in November, when Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas gathered in the United Center, and everyone agreed how it made a dandy Final Four preview? Maybe it did, but none of them ended up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

But starting Tuesday night, no more zig-zagging. It is a straight line for someone to One Shining Moment. What the inconsistencies of the season do is give an air of unpredictable intrigue to the bracket released Sunday night. Storylines abound.

Here are 10 for the first week.

So the chance for Wichita State to hush the doubters begins. Can the Shockers play against elite talent or not? The committee gave them ample opportunity to prove it. If they get past whichever No. 16 seed Friday, Kentucky’s freshmen could well be waiting Sunday. Upstart unbeaten vs. Big Blue Nation.

And beyond that, possibly Louisville. All part of a royal feast in Wichita State’s Midwest region, which includes three teams from last year’s Final Four --the Shockers, Louisville and Michigan – plus Kentucky and Duke. Gulp.

All could be well that ends well for Marcus Smart, after the mid-season turbulence at Oklahoma State. Imagine if he leads the revived Cowboys past Gonzaga. Imagine if he does the same thing over Arizona two days later.

It’s a chance for him to revisit the promise of the preseason, and remember why he waited for the NBA.

Conventional wisdom holds there is no big favorite in the field. But what about Florida, which last lost on Dec. 2 and has since reeled off 26 victories in a row while owning Kentucky, lock, stock and Rupp Arena?

OK, so only one No. 1 team in the past 12 years has gone on to win the championship -- Kentucky in 2012. But the Gators are out to prove there was a superteam this year after all, starting Thursday in Orlando.

Which No. 5 seed falls to a No. 12? It’s become as common a tournament sight as tuba players, happening 12 of the last 13 years.

Plenty of possibilities. VCU faces Stephen F. Austin, a 31-2 team that has not lost since five days before Thanksgiving. Cincinnati goes against 25-4 Harvard, which might a better Crimson team than the one that upset No. 3 seed New Mexico last March. Oklahoma should be wary of North Dakota State, at 50.9 percent, the surest shooting team in the nation. Same for slumping Saint Louis against the Xavier-North Carolina State first-round winner.

You could believe any of them.

Was Syracuse just napping at the end when it lost five of its last seven games, or are the Orange in genuine retreat? Western Michigan, whose only loss in the last 13 starts was in overtime, aims to find out.

Ohio State and Dayton are but an hour apart but have met only nine times in history and once in 26 years. Who’s ducked whom? Won’t matter on Thursday in Buffalo. They have a date.

If Nebraska can upset Baylor and Creighton can get past Louisiana-Lafayette, the entire Cornhusker state will sit down Sunday to see their two schools go at it in San Antonio. They met in December in Omaha, and Creighton won 82-67.

Twenty-six years ago, Danny Manning led 11-loss Kansas to a magical national championship. Twenty-seven years ago, Steve Alford led Bob Knight to his last title at Indiana. Now Manning is coaching Tulsa and Alford is coaching UCLA, and they meet Friday in San Diego.

Oregon beat BYU 100-96 in overtime in December. It was such a good game, why not do it again? So they will Thursday in Milwaukee. BYU will be trying to prove wrong the skeptics who said it should have been booted off the bubble after losing star Kyle Collinsworth to injury.

Mercer beat Seton Hall, narrowly lost to Texas and hails from the same Atlantic Sun Conference that last year gave us Florida Gulf Coast and Dunk City. Duke, you’ve been warned.

But then, as a rollicking winter gives way to the unknown of March, who hasn’t been?

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