Before there can be madness in March, there must be a road map, and all the storylines that come with it. Here are eight that Sunday night presented.
Start at the top
Alabama is on the pole. Never been a No. 1 seed. Never been to the Final Four. With Houston’s loss, the Tide might be ranked at the top of the final Associated Press poll, though that honor is nothing to covet since Kentucky 2012 is the only No. 1 ranked team that ended up a national champion in the past 20 tournaments. But as the Tide move to center stage, the Brandon Miller story will follow them wherever they go, even right up to the podium on April 3.
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The health issues
A bunch of them, for some of the biggest names. Kansas coach Bill Self missed the Big 12 tournament while he had heart stents placed to address blocked arteries. Houston star Marcus Sasser missed the Cougars’ loss in the American title game with a groin injury. UCLA was without guard Jaylen Clark and forward Adem Bona in the Pac-12. Clark, the Bruins’ best defender, will definitely miss the tournament. Texas was without third leading scorer Timmy Allen in the Big 12. Tennessee’s second leading scorer Zakai Zeigler is out. A lot of 11th hour adjusting is having to be done.
Among the cardinal rules in bracket-filling 101: Pick at least one No. 12 seed to dump a No. 5. Since the field expanded to 64 teams, it’s happened at least once in 32 of 37 tournaments. Fair warning to Duke, who gets an Oral Roberts team that has won 27 of its past 28 games and is still led by Max Abmas, who nearly shot the Golden Eagles to the Elite Eight two years ago. And San Diego State, who faces 31-3 Charleston. And Saint Mary’s, who drew VCU, the team sent home from the 2021 tournament without playing a game because of COVID positive tests. And Miami, who has to deal with surging Drake.
Upsets on other seed lines are allowed, too. No. 13 Kent State went 28-6 and played Houston and Gonzaga tough in their arenas, so No. 4 Indiana should be wary. No. 4 Tennessee has gone 5-7 its past 12 games and now is without Zeigler, and Louisiana is dangerous. In the past two tournaments Kentucky missed the field in 2021 and was infamously taken out by Saint Peter’s last march. A loss to No. 11 seed Providence would not be advisable for the mood of Big Blue Nation. Especially since the Friars’ leading scorer Bryce Hopkins played for Kentucky last season.
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First round games not to miss, other than 5 vs. 12
West Virginia-Maryland will not be for the physically squeamish. Auburn-Iowa is an intriguing contrast of defense vs. offense. Who here six months ago would have predicted Memphis-Florida Atlantic would be an 8-9 seeding match? The gem of them all might be Texas A&M vs. Penn State. When last seen they were playing for the SEC and Big Ten tournament championships Sunday afternoon. And then there’s the First Four collision of coaches/national championship guards. Arizona State and Bobby Hurley against Nevada and Steve Alford.
Second round games that could rattle the landscape
If Memphis plays as well as it did Sunday against Houston, Purdue might need every inch of 7-4 Zach Edey. Iowa’s shooters, if they’re on, could give Houston’s defense a challenge, especially if Sasser is still out. Texas vs. Texas A&M would grab that state's attention, even without goalposts. If it’s UCLA vs. Northwestern, that would be one program with 114 NCAA tournament wins against another program with two.
A tasty Sweet 16 possibility or two
Would you believe Gonzaga vs. UCLA in a reenactment of their 2021 Final Four classic? Purdue facing Duke, who once broke Gene Keady’s heart when he thought he had a Final Four team at last?
Some very conspicuous missing name
No North Carolina, who started the season ranked No. 1 with four starters back from the national championship game. One of the most inglorious spinouts of recent times. No Michigan, who in the past five tournaments has gone Sweet 16, national championship game, Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Sweet 16. No Wisconsin, who had missed only one of the past 23 tournaments. No Rutgers, who won seven conference games against Big Ten teams in the tournament, including Purdue on its own floor. No Villanova. The only team other than North Carolina who was in the top-20 of the preseason Associated Press poll and didn’t make the tournament. No Oklahoma State, who was No. 69, the last team to go.
The most intriguing questions that need answering
Will Sasser play and be anywhere close to 100 percent for Houston? And if not, how long can they last down an All-American? Can Alabama handle the scrutiny while trying to go where it has never gone before? Not without a football, anyway. Can Purdue learn to handle the press in time to end a 43-year Final Four drought? Can Kansas do what only two teams have done in 50 years — repeat? Can Gonzaga finally win a national championship the same year it finally lost a home game? Will Texas’ Rodney Terry be 2023’s answer to Steve Fisher, the interim who took Michigan to the 1989 national championship? Can UCLA or Arizona bring the Pac-12 its first title of the 21st century? Would it be a smart bet to take the state of Texas for the championship and give the field?
There are seven teams from the Lone Star State, including a 1, 2 and 3 seed. Is there team further down the seed list who could cause a ruckus? Consider No. 6 seed Creighton. The Bluejays stumbled to a 6-6 start with injuries but are now healthy and looking more like the top-10 team they were in the preseason.
And so it begins, because that’s what March is good at — answering questions.