- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 13, 2016

Almost weekly, confirmation came. Another top-ranked team would lose, slide in the polls and cause head-scratching.

The search for a dominant team was a fruitless one throughout the season. Nothing could be better for the hopefuls going into the NCAA tournament.

Sunday night, when the bracket was laboriously revealed around dinner time, the upper tier of a wide-open spectacle was established. Kansas — the top overall team — and North Carolina, Virginia and Oregon were deemed No. 1 seeds. As a foursome, the group has 23 losses, the most in tournament history for the top four teams. Last season, that group combined for nine losses.

“The volatility we’ve had in our game this year is off the charts,” said Jay Williams, the ESPN commentator and former Duke star. “I’ve lost track of No. 1 teams in the country that have gone down already. It’s fair to say that I don’t know if we’re going to have the best team that is going to win the championship. It’s a matter of putting together a great run in the span of three weeks. This thing is completely, completely wide open.”

That is the maniacal environment No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 5 seed Maryland wade into. Both accentuate the open and unpredictable framework of this year’s tournament. When The Associated Press preseason poll was released, Maryland and Virginia each received first-place votes. The Terrapins moved as high as No. 2 in the country at one point. They have been ranked as low as 18th. Virginia moved up to fourth, then dipped to 13th, before rising back to fourth by the end of the season.

“Everyone is capable,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s just that way now. That’s why you’ve got to be playing good basketball coming into this. No one is untouchable.”

The tournament has not been kind to either team of late. Virginia has not made it past the opening weekend in each of the last two tournaments, despite being a No. 1 seed in 2014 and a No. 2 seed in 2015. The Cavaliers also have not made it to the second weekend of the tournament since 1995. Maryland won one game last year as a No. 4 seed before being ousted. The Terrapins have not been to the Sweet 16 since 2003.

“I think you have five, six teams that are really good,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “Everybody will say those are the five or six that can win the national championship. Then, you have teams like us who can get hot, that are talented enough to get it done.”

Postseason conference tournaments bolstered the randomness of this year. The top seeds in The American, Atlantic 10, Atlantic Sun, Big East, Big Ten, Horizon League, Mountain West, Ohio Valley and SEC all lost. Twelve No. 1 seeds lost during the first 13 conference tournaments to be played this season. In the Ohio Valley, No. 8 seed Austin Peay — a 16 seed in the NCAA tournament — wound its way to a conference title and tournament spot. The four wins in four days pushed the Governors to 18-17 on the season, yet they are not even the bottom-dweller of the tournament. That title goes to Holy Cross, who won the Patriot League tournament despite going 14-19.

The NCAA tournament has long had a reputation for upheaval, though the high-end seeds would still often find their way to the later rounds. That has changed in recent years. Since 2008, when all four No. 1 seeds reached the title-defining weekend, more and more tumult has been in tow at the Final Four. In 2009, two top seeds made it. The next year, one. The following tournament, in 2011, none. Last year, things leveled off in favor of the bigwigs again. Three No. 1 seeds were among the last four teams, and two of them played for the national title.

“It just puts more importance on not looking ahead and focusing on the opponent at hand,” Maryland point guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “Right now, we’re 100 percent focused on South Dakota State. … We can’t look ahead. Nothing is promised.”

Still looming in the wilderness is a chance that a No. 16 seed finally beats a No. 1. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds are 124-0 all-time in their first game of the tournament. Perhaps this, the zaniest of seasons, is the year.

When Williams gets together with ESPN colleagues such as Jay Bilas and former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg, they make a list of teams they think could win the tournament. Typically, Williams‘ list is around eight teams. In particularly tumultuous seasons, like in 2010, he had 14 teams. This year, 22 teams are considered contenders.

“Twenty-two teams? That’s absurd,” Williams said.

He suggests that a lack of star power is the culprit. There’s no assembling of herculean teenagers the way Kentucky did last season, when it was led by No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns. Last year, Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four with two first-round picks. Duke made it with two players who were selected among the top 10 in the draft.

“We’re talking about Kansas winning the whole thing and I don’t think Kansas has a guy that can go in the first round of the NBA draft,” Williams said. “When’s the last time we had a team you say, ‘Oh, they can win the whole thing, but the don’t have a guy that can go in the first round of the NBA draft’? Michigan State can win the whole thing, they have one guy that can go in the first round of the NBA draft, and these are the teams that are the presumptive favorites. That’s absurd to me.”

There’s that word again. It’s an inviting one for Maryland and Virginia. Those schools spent much of the season in the convulsing upper echelon. Maybe Melo Trimble can get hot. Maybe Bennett’s pack-line defense will stonewall its way to Houston. In this year’s field, it could be the Cavaliers or Terrapins concluding the season with a snip. It also could be just about anyone else.

⦁ Staff writer Anthony Gulizia contributed to this story.

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