Psst! Hey, you.
Excited for the NCAA tournament? Of course you are. First, though, a word. Look, kid, there's something you should hear. Something they don't want you to know.
We're all flying blind here. With a blindfold on. In the fog. At night.
No -- seriously. Nobody has a clue.
Every NCAA tournament is unpredictable. Upsets are part of the fun. But not like this. Not after a season like this.
You can literally count the ways: In 2015-16, top-10 teams suffered 74 losses, the most since the Associated Press launched its Top 25 poll ... in 1948. Top-five teams were upset 37 times (21 of which came to unranked foes). That tied for the most ever. The No. 1 teams lost seven times during the regular season for, you guessed it, the first time ever.
There were other notable firsts this season. It was the first time in the one-and-done era that grizzled seniors, and not glittering freshmen, almost exclusively dominated the game. That game itself was new, too, thanks to a first-ever 30-second shot clock and freedom-of-motion rules that comprehensively succeeded in making a faster, more offensive, more entertaining product.
So, what makes March Madness? Brilliant basketball. Bittersweet farewells. Unexpected upsets. That's it. That's the recipe.
What was this season about? Better basketball, beloved senior stars and more upsets than ever.
If the past five months are any indication of what's to come, we are about to witness the NCAA tournament distilled to its purest chemical essence. The Blue Sky of Big Dances. The Ur-Tourney. The weirdest, wackiest, maddest March that ever Marched.
Or, you know, maybe not. Seriously? No clue.
For now, all we can offer is what we've already learned: tidbits, statistics and stories worth knowing about every team in the 2016 NCAA tournament, from 68 to 1.
Best of luck with that bracket, kid. You're going to need it.
On an infinite time scale, a No. 16/No. 1 upset is a mathematical certainty. Until then, these tiny teams with big seeds are thrilled for the chance to Dance.
68. Southern Jaguars
Southern -- simple, yet vague. Where'd you go to school? Southern. That's it. Just ... Southern. It's kind of great. Anyway, the Jaguars went 8-5 in nonconference play and won at Mississippi State. No small feat for a tiny team from the tiny SWAC.
67. Holy Cross Crusaders
Bill Carmody just accomplished in his first year at Holy Cross -- which went 5-13 in league play, had to play four conference tournament games on the road and won all four -- what he couldn't in 13 years in Evanston, Illinois: an NCAA tournament appearance. That sound you hear is every Northwestern fan whimpering in the fetal position.
66. Fairleigh Dickinson Knights
The pride of Teaneck, New Jersey, scorched its way through the NEC tournament en route to the NCAA tournament. Which makes sense, because its defense -- which, to be fair, forces a healthy number of turnovers -- rates out as the worst in the 2016 field.
65. Austin Peay Governors
On Feb. 20, after back-to-back home losses to bluegrass revival bands and/or conference foes Tennessee Martin and Murray State, Austin Peay was 12-17 overall. The Governors haven't lost since. Their miraculous appearance in the NCAA tournament has brought with it the good news and glad tidings of the greatest chant in the land: "Let's Go Peay!" Yep. Still funny.
64. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Dunk City returns! Or: Dunk City returns? It's been three years since this tiny program staged its aerial invasion of the NCAA tournament. This version is much more cautious -- though no less effective -- on the offensive end.
63. Hampton Pirates
Hampton coach Ed Joyner had one of the best moments of the 2014-15 tournament when he pretended -- or maybe not? -- to be talking to Jesus on his phone in advance of his No. 16-seeded team's matchup with unbeaten No. 1 Kentucky. He still seems like a pretty fun dude.
62. UNC Asheville Bulldogs
Just two teams -- one of which was the vaunted press of West Virginia -- posted a higher steals rate this season than Asheville. The Bulldogs' offense isn't much to look at, but their hassling defensive style will make them a chore.
61. Cal State Bakersfield Roadrunners
For four straight seasons, New Mexico State had maintained a stranglehold on the WAC's NCAA tournament bid. Meet the new boss, which arrives with a top-25 adjusted efficiency defense and a Looney Tunes nickname. What more do you want?
60. Weber State Wildcats
The Big Sky Conference champs finished 26-8 and among the nation's best teams at finishing inside the arc (55.5 percent 2-point shooting) and drawing fouls while doing it (46.6 percent free throw rate -- fourth highest in the country).
59. Green Bay Phoenix
Kay Felder and Alec Peters were among the nation's best players this season. Both played in the Horizon League. Neither played for Green Bay. The Phoenix will have to settle for the combination of Carrington Love and Jordan Fouse and a spot in the NCAA tournament. Fair trade.
58. Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders
Are they Blue Raiders because they wear blue while raiding? Or do they only raid people wearing blue? Discuss.
57. Buffalo Bulls
We remain disappointed that Buffalo's mascot isn't a buffalo. Buffalo's fans were disappointed when coach Bobby Hurley left for Arizona State last spring weeks after leading this program to its first NCAA tournament. One year later, under new coach Nate Oats, the Buffalo -- er, Bulls -- are back.
56. Fresno State Bulldogs
The sudden disaster that was the 2015-16 Mountain West ensured that at least one totally off-the-radar team would get a shot at San Diego State in the conference tournament title game. That team was Fresno State. The Bulldogs' reward? Their first tournament appearance since 2001.
A deep pool of potential upset candidates hailing from non-power leagues. Or: Beware Lumberjacks bearing gifts.
55. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
The experienced Jackrabbits boast three senior guards in their starting lineup, and all three are happy to feed freshman big Mike Daum, who gobbled rebounds on both ends, shot 82.2 percent from the free throw line and drew 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes this season.
54. UNC Wilmington Seahawks
Junior wing Chris Flemmings -- who made 62.6 percent of his 2s and 37 percent of his 3s -- is one of the tidiest scorers you've never heard of. He's one reason the well-rounded Seahawks are a dangerous double-digit seed, as long as their habit of sending opponents to the free throw line (which only West Virginia did more often this season) doesn't rear its ugly head.
52. Stony Brook Seawolves
It is no stretch to say that Stony Brook forward Jameel Warney -- who averages 19.0 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while shooting 62.6 percent from the field -- has been the best player on the court more often than anyone else in college basketball this season. Yes, some of that comes down to competition. But a lot of it comes down to Warney, who had 43-10-4 on 18-of-22 shooting in the America East title game that earned his team its first NCAA tournament bid. He's an absolute beast.
51. Chattanooga Mocs
Ask Georgia about Chattanooga. Or ask Illinois. Or, better yet, ask Dayton -- whom the Mocs beat 61-59 on Dayton's home floor back on Dec. 12. Matt McCall's 29-5 team hasn't seen itself as an underdog for one minute of the 2015-16 season. Why start now?
50. Hawaii Rainbow Warriors
The 27-8 Rainbow Warriors are not to be slept on: They were eight points from knocking off Texas Tech on the road and three from an upset of Oklahoma in Honolulu. Stefan Jankovic is a 6-foot-11 center who makes 61 percent of his 2s and 38 percent of his 3s for a team just outside the KenPom.com top 60. Hawaii's good.
49. Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans
Chris Beard coached at community colleges and junior colleges, in Division III and Division II. He spent one year as the head coach of the South Carolina Warriors, a semipro team in the American Basketball Association, which is something that apparently exists. His first Division I team enters the NCAA tournament 29-4. Paying dues pays off.
48. Northern Iowa Panthers
A year ago, forward Seth Tuttle & Co. cruised to a 30-3 record before Selection Sunday. These Panthers beat North Carolina in November, were 10-11 on Jan. 23, and then went 12-1 in their last 13 -- including two wins over Wichita State. It's been a much rockier ride to the same destination.
47. Yale Bulldogs
One of the best seasons in Yale history -- the school's fourth tournament appearance in 120 years -- has been largely overshadowed by campus controversy surrounding the team's displays of support for expelled captain Jack Montague. On the court, though, the Bulldogs are one of the 10 best offensive
46. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks
All hail Brad Underwood. He has yet to miss an NCAA tournament in his three-year tenure, and this might be his best group of Lumberjacks yet. You've heard of West Virginia's press? SFA forced its opponents into turnovers slightly more frequently than the Mountaineers. No one in the country was better. The Jacks' last loss? Dec. 29. They nearly took down an excellent Utah team in the first round a year ago; don't be surprised if they finish the job this time around.
45. Gonzaga Bulldogs
The offseason losses of senior guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell and an early-season back injury to center Przemek Karnowski made this season more of a struggle for Gonzaga than anyone could have expected in the fall. Still, Domantas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer -- and a group of guards who steadily improved as the season progressed -- helped the bubbly Zags to their 18th straight NCAA tournament all the same.
(Mostly) power-conference teams that (probably) won't leave a lasting impression on the field.
44. Tulsa Golden Hurricane
The biggest shock of the bracket by far -- literally no one had the Golden Hurricane in the tournament before Sunday afternoon -- is nonetheless the most experienced team in the field. Seven of Frank Haith's top nine rotation players are seniors. Should they be in the field? No. But such is life.
43. Syracuse Orange
In November, Syracuse shot its way past UConn and Texas A&M on consecutive days en route to the Battle 4 Atlantis belt. In December, Jim Boeheim served a nine-game NCAA suspension. In January, the Orange beat Notre Dame and Duke, the latter on the road. In February (and early March), they lost five of their past six games. Now what?
42. Vanderbilt Commodores
How good is this Vanderbilt team? Five months after it began 2015-16 ranked in the Top 25, we're still waiting for an answer. The clearly talented Dores opened at 8-7 and went 11-7 in the SEC, including a 4-1 regular-season finish. Then they began the postseason with a loss to Tennessee. Sneaking into this field is a final, desperate chance to reach their potential.
41. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan played itself in with a massive Big Ten conference tournament win over Indiana in Indianapolis, an admirable feat despite losing star guard Caris LeVert to injury on Jan. 1. This is not a vintage John Beilein team, but watching former NAIA player Duncan Robinson hoist 3s (he's 90-of-200 on the season) is worth the price of admission.
40. Temple Owls
A 5-5 nonconference start ensured the Owls would fly into American play well below anyone's radar -- at which point they promptly finished with a 14-4 record and an outright conference title in a league that also included SMU.
39. Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado ended its 18 conference games having been outscored, per trip, by its opponents. True story. Let's just say that statistic doesn't bode well.
38. Pittsburgh Panthers
After finishing eighth in ACC play in per-possession offense and defense, Pitt is so thoroughly mediocre, and so obviously destined to lose on the first weekend, that we'd be less surprised to see Stony Brook in the Sweet 16. Wait: Does that make Pitt a Cinderella?!
37. USC Trojans
Andy Enfield engineered the Dunk City-era Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. Now in his third year at USC and ahead of rebuilding schedule, he returns to the NCAA tournament leading a balanced, high-octane, defense-sold-separately Trojans team.
36. Oregon State Beavers
Guess who else ended the Pac-12 regular season with a negative efficiency margin? The RPI was incredibly generous to the Pac-12 this season, but when the upside is Gary Payton II in the NCAA tournament, it's hard to muster much outrage.
35. Cincinnati Bearcats
Looking for easy buckets? Steer clear of Cincinnati. The Bearcats held their opponents to 40.6 percent from 2-point range this season, the lowest figure in the country. Mick Cronin's teams always bring brutal, physical defense to the yard, but this might be the most daunting to date.
34. Butler Bulldogs
Butler's turn as the past decade's star Cinderella was built on hard-nosed, ball-stopping defense. These Bulldogs would rather score. When they're on, Roosevelt Jones, Kelan Martin and lights-out perimeter specialist Kellen Dunham are borderline unstoppable. But when the shots don't fall -- as in Butler's Big East tournament blowout loss to Providence -- struggles ensue.
33. VCU Rams
Shaka Smart is gone, but his style is not. The Rams have kept right on winning in Year 1 of the post-Shaka era in large part thanks to high-pressure, turnover-forcing defense and lethal, outside-in scoring from senior guard Melvin Johnson. If that sounds familiar, it should.
32. Texas Tech Red Raiders
One of the surprise stories of the season, Tubby Smith's Red Raiders started Big 12 play 3-7 before beating Iowa State, Baylor (at Baylor) and Oklahoma in three straight February games ... only to lose to TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. All bets are off.
31. Dayton Flyers
One of the field's best defensive teams lost three of four in late February, and that felt like a disaster. Such are the standards Archie Miller has set since his team's Elite Eight appearance two Marches ago. This may be his toughest out yet.
30. St. Joseph's Hawks
Phil Martelli's team is as solid as the triceps of the college kid responsible for unceasingly flapping the Hawk mascot's famous wings. Saint Joe's is one of the nation's least turnover-prone, and most foul-averse, teams. The Hawks make you work.
The wild card
One of the best 15 teams in the country barely made it into the NCAA tournament. You won't believe what happens next.
29. Wichita State Shockers
In their four years at Wichita State, Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker have played in a Final Four, engineered a 35-1 campaign and gone to the Sweet 16. VanVleet's early-season injury ensured this team's résumé would never live up to its actual basketball ability, which is how the nation's best per-possession defense enters the tournament as one of its most underrated (and underseeded).
Into the great wide open
After a regular season soundtracked by declarations of parity, these teams -- flawed and gifted in equal measure -- could flop on the first weekend or float to the Final Four. And yes: They are legion.
28. Providence Friars
Kris Dunn eschewed the NBA draft to expand his game and enjoy another season of college hoops, and though the road wasn't always smooth -- from Jan. 26 to Feb. 25, PC lost six of eight and Dunn's seemingly guaranteed status as an All-American faded -- Dunn's decision was nonetheless repaid with a surprise star turn by forward Ben Bentil, a top-25 defense and a return to the NCAA tournament.
27. UConn Huskies
"Momentum" will be the word of the week following UConn's performance in the American Conference tournament (which gave us Jalen Adams' inconceivable three-quarter-court shot against Cincinnati and will thus live on in our hearts forever). A better reason to be bullish on this team is its defense, particularly on the interior, where it holds opponents to just over 41 percent.
26. Wisconsin Badgers
Last week, just after the regular season concluded, coach Greg Gard received a five-year contract from the Wisconsin athletics department. This outcome would have seemed hilarious in January, when the Badgers were 1-4 in the Big Ten and 9-9 overall with home losses to Western Illinois, Milwaukee and Marquette. Bo Ryan's sudden departure in December thrust Gard into the uncomfortable position of attempting to keep his mentor's NCAA tournament streak alive -- and attempting to earn the job long-term. The Badgers went 11-2 down the stretch.
25. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
It is no small feat to emerge as the most efficient team in your league. It is especially impressive when that league also includes North Carolina, Virginia and Duke. The Irish are woeful defensively, sure, but at least Demetrius Jackson & Co. keep things fun.
24. Texas Longhorns
Shaka Smart made his name using guard-dominant, high-pressure lineups at VCU. His first Texas team was supposed to be an awkward personnel fit. Instead, Smart tailored his tactics, and Texas is already vastly ahead of the first-year Longhorns coach's schedule.
23. Baylor Bears
Last March, the Bears were steamrolled by one of the most memorable upset stories in recent NCAA tournament history -- that is, if you can call being up by double digits with a few minutes left in the second half "steamrolled." That team was one of the nation's best at creating and converting second chances; the same is true this season.
22. Iowa Hawkeyes
For a few weeks there -- as Iowa started the Big Ten season 7-0, with home-road sweeps of Purdue and (yes) Michigan State -- this team looked like a national title favorite. No, seriously! Then February brought a steep shooting regression, All-American Jarrod Uthoff started clanging everything, Fran McCaffery's team dropped five of its last seven regular-season games before falling to Illinois in the conference tournament, and Iowa fans were reminded why they can't have nice things. Will the real Hawkeyes please stand up?
21. Arizona Wildcats
The past two Arizona teams were the best of Sean Miller's distinguished career. They were the best in Tucson, Arizona, since Lute Olsen's late-1990s/early-aughts heyday. They were responsible for a combined 67 wins and nine losses. And they still didn't get Miller to his Final Four. (Thank Wisconsin, which downed Arizona in back-to-back Elite Eights, for that.) After losing four lifeblood starters last spring, these retooled Wildcats, led by transfer Ryan Anderson and freshman Allonzo Trier, weren't nearly as dominant as their predecessors. They are very good, though. And very well coached. And, in this wide-open season, capable of putting an ironic end to Miller's Phil Mickelson-esque drought.
20. Seton Hall Pirates
With a ball-dominant lead guard (Isaiah Whitehead) and a top-15-efficiency defense, one of the hottest teams in the sport would have made for a great sleeper. Then the Pirates had to go and beat Xavier and Villanova back-to-back at the Big East tournament. Pushing Kevin Willard's team deep in the bracket won't be proof of savvy but of baseline cognitive function.
19. Duke Blue Devils
The defending national champions were decimated in two waves in the past calendar year: Last spring, when Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow left for the NBA, and this winter, when backbone senior forward Amile Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury. What remains? The Ringo of last season's freshmen, Grayson Allen, has thrived as a solo artist in his All-American-level sophomore campaign. Freshman Brandon Ingram -- who, at 6-9, shoots 41.3 percent from 3 -- is Ben Simmons' chief competition for the NBA draft's next No. 1 pick. And there is also some guy named Mike Krzyzewski, who has won five national titles and more than 1,000 games in his career. Which, you know, tends to be a bonus. Structurally, though, these Blue Devils -- who finished 11th in the ACC in per-possession defense and ranked outside the top 100 nationally -- bear a striking resemblance to the Jabari Parker-led team that Mercer Nae Nae'd out of the field in the first round two years ago.
18. Iowa State Cyclones
Last summer, for weeks on end, the scoreboard at the Iowa State basketball practice facility read 60-59. The symbolism was plain: The Cyclones' first-round NCAA tournament upset last March needed to be avenged. In beloved star Georges Niang's final season, ISU's finely formulated offense remains as potent as its desire for redemption.
17. California Golden Bears
From Feb. 6 to March 3, during a 7-0 run that cemented the once-bubbly Bears' bid, only Kansas and Michigan State played more efficient all-around basketball (according to the BPI). Ivan Rabb has been excellent all season. Jaylen Brown (when he is taking good shots and laying off the turnovers) is a devastating, rim-attacking matchup nightmare. And the Bears' veteran backcourt -- Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews -- is as good as any. The Pac-12's best defensive team just so happens to be one of the most talented, hottest and frightening outfits in the field. You've been warned.
16. Maryland Terrapins
Two seasons ago, Maryland went 17-15 and lost five players in the summer to transfer. Here's a fun thought experiment: What if you told Terps fans then that in just two seasons' time they'd enter the NCAA tournament with 25 wins and a high single-digit seed -- and that situation would be mildly disappointing? They'd take it, right? Point guard Melo Trimble's sophomore slump has been baffling, and this team's turnover issues destroy its ability to efficiently put points on the board. Fortunately, this team is both a) good defensively as a baseline and b) the most gifted, balanced lineup this side of North Carolina. It may get hot yet. And if talent wins titles, Maryland remains a favorite.
15. Purdue Boilermakers
As if dual 7-foot centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas weren't enough, last summer Matt Painter added Caleb Swanigan, a polished 6-9 blue-chipper, to the Boilers' front line. Big, tough and imposing, Purdue is one of the nation's best rebounding teams on both ends of the floor, while defensive specialist Rapheal Davis leads a backcourt with a host of underrated perimeter threats.
14. Indiana Hoosiers
On Dec. 2, after losses to Wake Forest and UNLV in Maui, Indiana allowed 92 points in 62 possessions at Duke. No hyperbole required here: It was the worst defensive performance by any team in at least five years. Three months later, the Hoosiers were the outright Big Ten champions. Tom Crean has done a remarkable job turning his once offense-only team into one of college basketball's most well-rounded, and formerly disconsolate Hoosiers fans are allowing themselves to dream of a return to the Final Four. Go figure.
13. Texas A&M Aggies
This is Billy Kennedy's first tournament team in his five-year College Station tenure, but the Aggies aren't here to tick off an obligatory box. They want more -- and rightfully so. A mix of crafty veterans and talented freshmen owned the SEC's best per-possession defense (a brand of aggressive, pressuring half-court man that forced turnovers on 21.7 percent of opponents' possessions) and its second-best offense (which recorded an assist on nearly two-thirds of its made field goals, the third-highest mark in the country). Few teams can boast such balance.
12. Utah Utes
Two words: Jakob Poeltl. Learn them, love them, live them. The native of Vienna, Austria, has more than justified his lottery-pick hype as a sophomore, averaging 17.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game ... while shooting 66 percent from the field. Our favorite stretch of his season came in February, when Poeltl averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds, and shot 40-of-54 -- 40 of 54! -- in four games. A Greg Oden-level tear through this tournament is totally on the table.
11. Xavier Musketeers
If you thought the Sweet 16 appearance that Xavier made a year ago was nice, you ain't seen nothing yet. Coach Chris Mack returned from last season's surprising postseason success with the best team of his tenure, one that spent most of the season not only guaranteed of a return to the NCAA tournament but also in contention for a No. 1 seed. Deep and balanced with great guard play? Beast-mode rebounding up front? A dude named Myles Davis? Xavier has it all.
All contenders are equal, but some are more equal than others.
10. Miami Hurricanes
How many contenders have broken our hearts this season? Showed up looking great, won us over with wit and charm, only to ghost after the fourth date? In a landscape defined by constant chaos, a veteran group led by Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez has been one of the nation's most consistent entities. The ACC's fifth-best per-trip offense and defense is rarely spectacular, sure, but the Hurricanes also don't do anything poorly.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers
A year ago, Bob Huggins installed a full-court press as a personnel necessity; this season, he made it a way of life. WVU still hounds ball handlers (and, yes, commits a ton of fouls in the trade) from the moment the ball is inbounded. The difference is this group locks down in the half court, too. Meanwhile, no team grabs more of its own misses per possession (42.1 percent). Drawing the Eers means fighting that press on one end and Devin Williams on the other -- with your season on the line. "Thanks, but no thanks," said every other team in the bracket.
8. Kentucky Wildcats
One year and seven NBA departures ago, Kentucky entered the NCAA tournament 34-0. This is not that season. This is not that kind of team. These Wildcats are flawed. Their defensive rebounding is suspect. They foul far too often. And yet, guard Tyler Ulis has been great all season, while Jamal Murray -- for whom coach John Calipari ditched elements of his dribble-drive offense, instead opting to put Murray in more conventional movement and screen sets off the ball, midway through the season -- is making pretty much everything he looks at these days, especially from deep. Like Murray's role, it took a while for this team (and, by his own admission, its coach) to figure things out, particularly on offense. Now that it has, it can be terrifying. Flaws and all.
7. Oregon Ducks
Just joining us? Chances are you've never heard of Chris Boucher. Let's correct this immediately: Oregon's spindly 6-10 forward (and his 7-4 wingspan) played his first organized basketball at the tender age of 19. True story. He spent two years in junior college before Oregon's staff took a flier on his senior season, hoping the dude might block a few shots off the bench. What the Ducks got instead was one of the nation's best two-way rebounders, a 66 percent finisher inside the arc, a stretch center with the range to make more than 30 3s, and -- oh yeah -- one of the best shot-blockers in the country. The kid, you might say, is a natural. There is more to the Ducks' 2015-16 success than Boucher, of course, but it's impossible to envision this excellent campaign without him.
6. Oklahoma Sooners
On Friday night, Buddy Hield, Jordan Woodard, Ryan Spangler and Isaiah Cousins -- the heart of an OU team that has embraced the 3, poured in the points and created some of the season's most memorable moments -- officially started their 100th game together. Three seasons and five starters, one of whom is about to win the Wooden Award. As rarities go, half-court buzzer-beaters that end up not counting are blasé by comparison.
5. Villanova Wildcats
Villanova had a great preseason. Really, really promising stuff. Twenty-nine wins, five losses, another Big East regular-season title. Lots of buzz, too. If the Wildcats can carry this forward into the season -- Oh, you hadn't heard? Villanova's season begins now. Twelve months ago, Jay Wright admitted that his program would be "defined" by its second straight opening-weekend loss as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. He was right. Is that unfair? Absolutely. But it is nonetheless a fact of Villanova's life: No matter what it accomplished this season, none of it will matter if the Wildcats don't hit the Sweet 16.
This season's most likely national champions. Which, in this season, only means so much. But still.
4. Virginia Cavaliers
Two teams enter the NCAA tournament ranked among the top 10 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Which is to say: There are two teams in the country that are almost equally amazing at playing offense and defense. One is Kansas. The other is Virginia. Does UVa's slow style lend itself to close games and high-leverage possessions? Yes. Is that comforting in a tournament when every game could be Malcolm Brogdon's last? Not particularly. Is this a bona fide national title contender anyway? Oh, god yes.
3. Michigan State Spartans
Twelve months ago, Tom Izzo took a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team and led it past Virginia, Oklahoma and Louisville en route to his seventh Final Four in 17 seasons. What happens when he enters the same competition with the nation's best offensive team? What happens when his best player is also a hyperefficient do-everything guard/wing/forward who just became the first player to average 19 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds per game since the NCAA started formally recording assists? What is the likelihood of a team that Izzo has spent whole months praising -- and describing as among the best he's ever had the opportunity to work with -- making the Final Four? Would you bet against him? Or Denzel Valentine? How lucky are you feeling?
2. North Carolina Tar Heels
Marcus Paige is the first to admit it: This hasn't been the senior season he envisioned. Not for himself, anyway. The all-time UNC 3-point leader has spent the past two months firing bricks ... and his team was still good enough to win the ACC regular-season title and the conference tournament last week. The rest of the team Paige plays with is so deep, balanced and experienced that he doesn't have to be the volume-shooting perimeter terror he was as a sophomore and junior. He has All-American forward Brice Johnson to take the lead, Joel Berry to hit perimeter shots, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson to slash off the wing, and Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Joel James to run at the rim. When Paige is on, this team is unstoppable. When he isn't, North Carolina is still one of the handful of obvious national title favorites.
1. Kansas Jayhawks
The height of John Wooden's career at UCLA, when Wooden won his unbreakable record 11 national titles, featured a streak of 13 consecutive conference titles. If our math checks out, Kansas, which won its 12th straight last week, is one behind the Wizard of Westwood. Crazy, right? Yes. Also crazy? Kansas has been that dominant for that long and won just one national title (2008) during that time. Is this the group to hang No. 2? The Jayhawks haven't lost since Jan. 30. Senior forward Perry Ellis is a subtle master. Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham are a two-headed guard monster. And no team -- even Carolina -- has more varied, versatile depth waiting to be tactically deployed. There are no safe bets in a tournament like this. Not after a season like this. But Kansas? Kansas is close.