On March 22, 2015, Jay Wright knew the score.
The Villanova coach had just seen his No. 1-seeded team fall to No. 8 NC State 71-68 in Pittsburgh in the round of 32. Wright had no doubts about how the rest of the world -- talking heads, angry Twitter eggs, devastated Wildcats fans -- would react.
He knew from experience. His team was bounced in the same round the previous season. No matter that the loss came to eventual national champion Connecticut. No matter that Villanova had won 62 games in its past two seasons. The circumstances mattered less than the narrative, and the narrative didn't have to make all that much sense. The Wildcats couldn't win in the NCAA tournament. The end. Wright knew.
"I know we have to answer to the fact that we did not get to the second weekend again," Wright said at the time. "We have to own that. But it's not going to define us within our program. It's going to define us outside our program, and we accept that. ... We failed here in this NCAA tournament, and we just got to accept that, and we've got to own it and live with it. But it won't define us."
You know what happened next.
Such is the power of the NCAA tournament -- for better and for worse. Four months, hundreds of games, and thousands of individual stories are obliterated in three short weeks. It sweeps away everything that came before.
The 2016-17 Duke Blue Devils were the overwhelming preseason favorite, spent most of the season managing injuries, their iconic coach's absence, and a five-alarm Grayson Allen fire, and if they go 6-0 from here, no one will remember or care. Baylor went from unranked in the preseason to its first-ever No. 1 ranking (on Jan. 9); if the Bears are upset for the third straight season, the story of that success will vanish.
The Northwestern Wildcats have spent their entire basketball existence in a generationally futile struggle. Now, finally, they've arrived, and poof: 77 years of failure gone, just like that.
A variation of these stakes exists for every team, on every line, of this brand-new bracket. The tournament will define them all, one way or the other, by what happens next. Just ask Villanova.
Already Shining, Part I
On an infinite time scale, a No. 16/No. 1 upset is a mathematical certainty. Until then, these tiny teams with big seeds are just thrilled for the chance to dance.
68. Texas Southern Tigers
Mike Davis arrived in Houston's Third Ward five years ago. This is the third time his Tigers have captured the SWAC's automatic bid. That's two more tournament trips than he made in the six seasons he spent at UAB -- and exactly as many, in exactly as many seasons, as Davis experienced as Bob Knight's successor at Indiana. Go figure.
67. North Carolina Central Eagles
Eagles opponents shot 29.1 percent from 3, the third-worst mark in Division I, and 63.1 percent from the free throw line, worst in the sport. This probably says more about the MEAC than about NC Central, but hey, do with this information what you will.
66. Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers
The Mountaineers took the customary low-major lumps in nonconference play, playing West Virginia, Iowa State, Minnesota and Michigan in a nine-game, season-opening road trip. They started 1-11; they finished 17-4.
65. UC Davis Aggies
One of four first-timers in the tournament, the Aggies thrive thanks to Canberra, Australia, native Chima Moneke, who grabbed a Caleb Swanigan-esque 29.6 percent of available defensive rebounds this season.
64. Troy Trojans
After Texas State made an excellent UT Arlington team this season's chief conference tournament victim, Troy -- which finished 10-8 in the Sun Belt but owned the league's most efficient offense -- seized its chance.
63. New Orleans Privateers
First things first: great nickname. Every third school calls itself the Pirates, but those ruffians lack the sponsorship of crown authority! Bah! Second: New Orleans returned all five starters from a 10-win season, coughed up turnovers at a higher rate than all but two Division I teams and shot 32 percent from 3 ... and still played itself into the Dance. Respect.
62. Jacksonville State Gamecocks
What are the odds of having two different sets of Gamecocks in the same NCAA tournament? Better than Jacksonville State's odds of winning a game therein, sure. But still.
61. North Dakota Fighting Hawks
The Fighting Hawks became a full-fledged Division I member in 2009-10. It took Northwestern 77 years to get into the NCAA tournament; it took North Dakota seven.
60. South Dakota State Jackrabbits
A season ago, South Dakota State forward Mike Daum was the breakout newcomer on a very good mid-major outfit. These Jackrabbits struggled, but they're back in the NCAA tournament in large part thanks to Daum's 25.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game -- and the beast-mode 34 and 12 he put on Omaha in SDSU's two-point Summit League championship win.
59. Kent State Golden Flashes
The Golden Flashes got here with a conference tourney run of unmatched epicness: A 116-106 overtime win over Central Michigan followed by three wins in three days over the league's top three seeds by an average of 3.3 points -- culminating in a title game win that not only earned them a bid but spoiled rival Akron's 26-win season. MACtion knows no season.
58. Northern Kentucky Norse
Not only does Northern Kentucky have one of the best team nicknames under Odin's beard, but its mascot, Victor E. Viking (!), is genuinely terrifying. What more do you need to know?
57. Iona Gaels
For the second straight season, Iona's trademark blend of up-tempo offense, long-range shooting and defensive indifference was enough to swipe a bid out from under the two best teams (and benches) in Monmouth Hawks history.
56. Winthrop Eagles
Winthrop won at Illinois, held opponents under 47 percent (effective) shooting, and is led by Keon Johnson, a 5-foot-7 senior guard who took 235 3s this season -- and shot 40 percent. If you're looking for a random first-round upset flier, this might be the way to go.
55. Florida Gulf Coast Eagles
Since the great Dunk City incursion of 2013 -- a tournament run so memorable Google's first result for "Dunk City" is Florida Gulf Coast men's basketball -- former Bill Self assistant Joe Dooley, making FGCU's second straight tournament appearance, has turned a fun one-off story into a legitimate mid-major program.
A smattering of upset culprits hailing from non-power leagues.
54. Bucknell Bison
The Patriot League's best team by a wide margin shot 54.6 percent from 2 and 37.7 percent from 3; the Bison were one of the 25-or-so most accurate teams in the country.
The Buccaneers swat a bunch of shots, swipe a mess of steals and turn opponents over on the reg, while lead guard T.J. Cromer capably carries a massive share of the offensive load. If ETSU isn't turning the ball over itself -- and it did so on nearly 21 percent of its possessions this season -- it's as dangerous as any mid-major in the field.
52. Vermont Catamounts
Vermont went to the brink of disaster in the America East title game: With 17 seconds to play and his team up by three, freshman star Anthony Lamb heaved a head-scratching inbounds pass 60 feet upcourt, giving Albany an unexpected chance to tie. The Great Danes couldn't capitalize. This was just. The 29-5 Catamounts last lost Dec. 21 at Butler. They went unbeaten in their league and won 21 straight -- the nation's longest active streak, and one that might get longer yet.
51. UNC Wilmington Seahawks
UNC Wilmington gets buckets. More accurately, UNC Wilmington gets shots. Kevin Keatts' team earned its second straight tourney spot by shooting 56 percent inside the arc while hoisting a healthy diet of 3s, earning second chances at the offensive glass, and turning the ball over fewer times per possession (13.9 percent) than any team in Division I. More shots means more points. Easy to understand, brutal to guard.
50. Princeton Tigers
The Ivy League's undefeated regular-season champion and winner of its first conference tournament (which included a stacked-deck overtime semifinal against Penn at the Palestra) is Bo Ryan-era Wisconsin for the elite coastal set. The Tigers do everything well defensively (especially on the glass), slow the pace, and rarely turn the ball over. Meanwhile, no tournament team generated more of its offense (41.7 percent) from beyond the arc. Three is more than two? Pshh. These Ivy League kids think they're so smart.
49. Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Trigger warning for Michigan State fans: The architects of one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history -- last season's 15-over-2 shocker that sent one of Tom Izzo's best, most harmonious teams home in the first round -- are back. They're also better. Last year's Blue Raiders went temporarily unconscious for one afternoon. This edition, which generates more of its points from inside the arc (58 percent) than any other team in the field, has been lighting it up for four months.
(Mostly) power-conference teams that (probably) won't leave a lasting impression on the field.
48. USC Trojans
With all due respect to Andy Enfield's improving program, which is now in its second straight NCAA tournament, the Trojans barely outscored Pac-12 opposition per possession this season, are liked much less by advanced metrics than the silly old RPI, and have that unmistakable whiff of one-and-out about them.
47. New Mexico State Aggies
Marvin Menzies went to five NCAA tournaments in his nine years in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and four in his last five years. His off-the-beaten-path program-building landed him the job at UNLV (albeit under unusual circumstances) last April. While Menzies figures out how to make the Runnin' Rebels relevant, the Aggies' succession has proved seamless.
46. Rhode Island Rams
Rhode Island entered the season with Top 25 expectations, mostly thanks to the return of senior guard E.C. Matthews from a 2015 knee injury. Rhody never quite lived up to that billing, but a tourney bid will do.
45. Nevada Wolf Pack
Longtime NBA coaching journeyman Eric Musselman may belong to college basketball's increasingly random "Whoa, that NBA guy coaches there?!" fraternity -- led by co-presidents Dan Majerle (Grand Canyon) and Mike Dunleavy Sr. (Tulane, seriously) -- but he has done a bang-up job in just his second season at Nevada. The Wolf Pack were the Mountain West's best, and while that may not mean what it did when Jimmer Fredette and Kawhi Leonard were around, it's an impressive accomplishment all the same.
44. Kansas State Wildcats
Bruce Weber's team may not be pretty -- which is a polite way of saying it's pretty brutal to watch -- but the Wildcats forced more turnovers than any Big 12 team not nicknamed "Press Virginia," and they beat Baylor twice. So there's that.
43. Vanderbilt Commodores
Teams with 14 losses rarely receive at-large bids. No team with 15 losses ever has before. Yet here Vanderbilt is, thanks not only to a comically shallow bubble but, to be fair, to first-year coach Bryce Drew's willingness to embrace the 3-point shot (and why not) as the Commodores' great equalizer. (Oh, and the wins over Florida. Those helped a lot.)
42. Xavier Musketeers
Xavier opened the season with top-15 expectations, looked the part for weeks, then lost guard Edmond Sumner to injury and spent February and early March losing to every Big East team not named DePaul. Then came the conference tournament, where the Musketeers redeemed themselves with a win over Butler, and hey: Maybe there's a happy ending to this story yet.
41. Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Center John Collins takes 30 percent of Wake Forest's shots, shoots 62 percent from the field, grabs nearly 17 percent of available offensive rebounds, and draws almost eight fouls for every 40 minutes of basketball he plays. Wake's shaky defense nearly kept it out of the field, but lawd, is that kid a beast.
40. Providence Friars
Ed Cooley's team spent most of the season off the radar, and started Big East play 4-8, before going on a six-game tear to close the regular season. If shots are falling, Providence can play with anybody; if they're not, things can get ugly.
39. Michigan State Spartans
Yes, Tom Izzo is Tom Izzo, which is another way of saying this team will probably, somehow, end up in the Elite Eight. Still, chill. Strip away the aura of Marches past (except, you know, last year) and what you're left with is a really young, undeniably talented team that turns the ball over way too much, doesn't force turnovers of its own, doesn't grab offensive rebounds, doesn't get to the line, and commits way too many fouls on the other end. Proceed with caution.
38. Seton Hall Pirates
Not unlike conference brethren Providence, Seton Hall started Big East play with three wins in nine games before righting the ship in a 7-2 finish down the stretch. This team rebounds well on both ends, and Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado and Desi Rodriguez can form like Voltron when everything is clicking. Still, the Pirates gave up more than they got per possession in 18 Big East games. Don't go too crazy.
37. Marquette Golden Eagles
Anyone up for a fast-paced, high-scoring, defense-optional first-round game? Marquette is the team for you! The Golden Eagles boast one of the nation's most efficient offenses. No team in Division I shoots it better from 3 (43.0 percent). Only Villanova was better in Big East play (and not by all that much). Unfortunately, Marquette also boasts the worst defense of any Big East team not named DePaul. To review: great offense, bad defense, occasionally effective, always fun.
36. VCU Rams
Second-year coach Will Wade has VCU in the tournament yet again, with a roster that is yet again forcing a healthy number of turnovers. The defining legacy of Shaka Smart's tenure at the school has now blended into an evolving mix of styles -- including better first-shot and interior defense than at any time in recent program history.
35. Dayton Flyers
This is Dayton's fourth straight appearance under coach Archie Miller, which is why you'll hear so much in the next few weeks about the various programs vying for Miller's services. In the meantime, the Flyers -- who record an assist on 61 percent of their made field goals -- will see how far their unselfish, balanced attack will take them.
34. Maryland Terrapins
A third season in College Park wasn't Melo Trimble's plan. After a brilliant freshman season, Trimble was a preseason player of the year candidate as a sophomore before a solid but vaguely disappointing season (relative to expectations) -- both for him and for his team -- cooled the NBA's interest. Yet as the only returning starter surrounded by a bevy of promising youngsters, Trimble has once again flashed the ability to carry his team's offense -- sometimes single-handedly.
33. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas drew little national attention this season, and as late as the first week of February, after losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, the Razorbacks looked like just another mediocre SEC team. By the time the season was over, Mike Anderson's team was pushing Kentucky's legion of lottery picks for the title of the SEC's best offense.
32. South Carolina Gamecocks
Last March's infamous bracket leak overshadowed another minor Selection Sunday disaster: When South Carolina -- one of the first bubble teams left out of the field -- was mistakenly included in a group text congratulating teams for making the NCAA tournament. Whoops! No such clerical issues were in play this year; star wing Sindarius Thornwell and one of the nation's best defenses made sure of that.
31. Virginia Tech Hokies
With all due respect to the Hokies' players -- who have fulfilled last year's "look out for Virginia Tech" proclamations with Zach LeDay's versatility, brilliant perimeter shooting and plenty of aplomb -- the real star of the show is on the sideline, where coach Buzz Williams has taken up the Gary Williams perspiration torch. Williams starts each game in a three-piece suit; he rarely ends one in it. A few weeks ago, he spent an entire second half in a T-shirt. He's a prop bet waiting to happen.
30. Miami Hurricanes
In 2013, after a win that sent Miami to its first Sweet 16 in 13 years, coach Jim Larranaga gave birth to the greatest college hoops gif of the past half decade. In 2015, he whipped and/or nae nae'd. This happened in February. If there's any reason for the uninvested to root for the Hurricanes in March, it's in the hope college basketball's resident adorable grandpa will dance like no one's watching.
Already Shining, Part II
29. Northwestern Wildcats
Here are the facts, and boy do they bear repeating: Northwestern's last winning Big Ten record came in 1968. Before 2015-16, Northwestern had never won 20 games in a regular season; it had never broken the 20-win threshold, period. The first NCAA tournament was held in 1939 in Evanston, Illinois. The NCAA tournament has included at least 64 teams for 32 years. Northwestern was the only power conference team in college basketball history -- the only one -- never to make the NCAA tournament.
It is almost impossible to fathom the epochal end these 2016-17 Wildcats represent. Compare them to the (world champion!) Chicago Cubs if you like, but then imagine if the Cubs went 100 years without once making the playoffs. That's what we're talking about here. That's how winning 21 games in the regular season, finishing 10-8 in the Big Ten, and sliding into the back half of a 68-team NCAA tournament field makes you legendary. And don't get it twisted: Whatever happens later this week, Chris Collins and his players are already legends.
The official category of the pondering emoji, full of flawed teams that might just go to the Final Four anyway.
28. Minnesota Golden Gophers
As jaw-dropping as Northwestern's presence in this field is, Minnesota sure gave its league foes a real run for plot-twist primacy. The Golden Gophers won eight games last season. Eight! Richard Pitino suspended or dismissed five players; the athletic director who hired him, Norwood Teague, resigned in disgrace the previous summer; a school audit in May found Pitino had drastically overspent his travel budget in his first two seasons. The idea of Minnesota anywhere near the NCAA tournament was laughable. No one's laughing now.
27. Creighton Bluejays
The last time Creighton went to the tournament, coach Greg McDermott's son Doug was getting buckets and winning player of the year awards. For a while there, this team looked even better. An 18-1 start was the best in program history, and folks in Omaha, Nebraska, were talking Final Four. That dream ended alongside point guard Maurice Watson's season, but Marcus Foster and breakout NBA prospect Justin Patton remain a potent offensive brew.
26. Wisconsin Badgers
Wisconsin spent the first three months of the 2016-17 season as a top-10 team and presumptive Big Ten favorite; the Badgers have spent the past five weeks trying to figure out why the ball won't go in the basket. The Badgers shot 46.9 percent from 2, 34 percent from 3 and 62 percent from the free throw line in 18 Big Ten games. If, mercifully, those shots start falling, Ethan Happ, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig will seem dangerously underseeded. If not, the postseason could be brief.
25. Michigan Wolverines
Michigan's postseason took one of the scariest turns in recent college hoops memory before it even began. On March 8, departing for the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., the Wolverines' team plane aborted takeoff amid high winds, at which point it skidded off the runway into the airport equivalent of a roadside ditch. When the dust had settled and everyone had recovered, John Beilein called a team meeting and asked his players whether they still wanted to go to D.C. People would have understood, you know? Instead Michigan showed up at the Verizon Center the following morning and, clad in practice uniforms, promptly smacked Illinois by 20. Does it get more hard-core?
24. Iowa State Cyclones
Monte Morris has spent his entire career in Ames, Iowa, defying the ballhandling odds, but his senior season has been special, even by his own lofty standards. Since 1996-97, no one has averaged 35 minutes, 5.0 assists and 1.0 turnovers in a season; against Big 12 competition, Morris averaged a mistake once every 47 minutes he was on the floor. When coaches dream, they dream of having a point guard like Morris. When they wake up, they have to figure out how to stop the offense he powers. Few manage.
23. Saint Mary's Gaels
By most reasonable measures, the 2016-17 Gaels were good enough to be the West Coast Conference's best team in just about any other year in recorded human history. This is probably the best Saint Mary's team ever. This season, unfortunately, Gonzaga happened to be a juggernaut. Tough break. The good news: Now we get to see how uber-efficient center Jock Landale and his hot-shooting Australian brethren stack up with the rest of country. Finally.
22. Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Once besmirched in the same breath as Wisconsin and Virginia for its sloth -- and, to be fair, Notre Dame did have a whole offense, "burn," designed around killing clock -- the Irish are now a testament to basketball's modern positional revolution. Notre Dame's center, Bonzie Colson, is a 6-foot-5 converted former wing who's having an All-American season at the fulcrum of a precisely spaced outside-in offensive attack. It's as beautiful as it is effective.
21. Florida Gators
Save a season here and a season there, Florida basketball was basically nonexistent until 1996, when Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley hired a 30-year-old Rick Pitino protege named Billy Donovan. In 2015, after two unprecedented decades of success, Foley's task -- finding Donovan's replacement -- was twice as daunting. He chose Mike White. Two-for-two. An injury to top shot-blocker John Egbunu and back-to-back March losses to Vanderbilt have taken some of the shine off what once was one of the nation's hottest teams, but if these suddenly reborn, post-Billy D Gators are locked in, look out.
20. Cincinnati Bearcats
Mick Cronin has exclusively fielded athletic, physical, defense-driven teams during his tenure at Cincinnati. None have worn it better than this one. The Bearcats are customarily rowdy on the offensive glass, but they truly thrive at forcing misses inside the arc on the defensive end, which they do better than every team in the country that (A) isn't Gonzaga or (B) doesn't have a 7-foot-6 center (Tacko Fall, UCF).
19. SMU Mustangs
In the first season of the post-Larry Brown era (which went exactly as expected, for better and for worse), here's what you need to know about SMU: (1) Semi Ojeleye, a former blue-chip Duke recruit, is 6-foot-7, shoots 43 percent from 3, and is one of the most efficient volume scorers in college hoops; (2) Shake Milton is really good at basketball, but also his name is Shake Milton, so the previous phrase is redundant; (3) Tim Jankovich's Mustangs shoot the lights out, rebound their own misses, don't send opponents to the free throw line, and do pretty much everything else you can do while on a basketball court either well or very well. Relative to seed, no team this side of Wichita State will scare its bracket neighbors so comprehensively.
18. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State started Big 12 play 0-6. First-year coach Brad Underwood, whom you may remember from such films as "The Guy Who Coached That Awesome Dude With The Beard That Beat No. 3-Seed West Virginia Last Year," pulled things back on defense -- which had given up 1.19 points per trip in those six losses attempting to play Underwood's high-impact Stephen F. Austin style -- and subsequently soaked up wins in 10 of the Cowboys' next 11 games. Along the way, Jawun Evans (perhaps the nation's best passer) and chums usurped UCLA in two ways: They became the nation's most efficient offensive team, per KenPom.com, and the one most likely to draw the old "but what about stops?!" bracket skepticism. UCLA's defense isn't all that bad. OSU's defense is still pretty rough. Fair enough. But when you score it like this -- and Underwood's team still gave up 1.06 points per trip (!) in that 10-1 streak down the stretch -- who cares?
17. Butler Bulldogs
Remember when Butler was a cute, cuddly Horizon League underdog? Remember how it almost shocked the world? Feels like a long time ago, huh? While Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward were busy tearing up their respective corners of the NBA, Chris Holtmann, now 3-for-3 on NCAA bids in his tenure, has carried a program best known for its storybook qualities into a future of perennial Big East contention.
16. Florida State Seminoles
Despite all visual evidence to the contrary, Leonard Hamilton is 68 years old. (No, seriously!) This is his 30th college season. This might be his best team ever. It's undoubtedly the best he has had in a decade and a half at Florida State -- most of the time, anyway. Dwayne Bacon, Terance Mann, Xavier Rathan-Mayes and impossibly long wunderkind Jonathan Isaac form one of the most talented, athletic cores in the sport. When they're flying up and down the floor, seizing mismatches and attacking the rim, as they were for most of the 2016-17 season, they're one of the best teams in the country. But when they're bad, they're really bad.
15. Virginia Cavaliers
At the dawn of coach Tony Bennett's ascension, Virginia's somnolent pace confused critics into thinking the Cavaliers couldn't score. They could, and quite well, thank you very much -- they just attempted to do so less often than most teams over 40 minutes. This season's Cavaliers, though, deserve the eyesore rap. The pack-line defense is still the nation's best on a per-possession basis, but against ACC opponents the Cavaliers ranked 11th in points per trip. In late February, they scored 89 points in 120 possessions in two games combined. As much as Bennett misses All-American guard Malcolm Brogdon, he might pine for classmate Anthony Gill even more -- the Cavaliers have no post threat, no offensive rebounding and are left prostrate before the fickle whims of whatever cruel Greek deity controls the tightness of orange-painted steel cylinders. The results can be tragic.
14. Purdue Boilermakers
Sure, Purdue has its flaws. The Boilermakers finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in offensive rebounding percentage. Their propensity for turnovers -- the Achilles' heel that Arkansas Little Rock exploited in 2016's double-overtime first-round upset -- remains. Their conservative defensive philosophy sacrifices turnovers in order to avoid fouls. Purdue also has one of the best long-range rosters in the country surrounding All-American Caleb Swanigan (18.7 points, 12.6 rebounds), who posted 26 double-doubles in 32 games, and who shoots 43 percent from 3 himself. It evens out.
The Wild Card, Part I
13. Wichita State Shockers
Can we be real a second? For just a millisecond? Let down our guard and tell the people how we feel a second? This was written before the bracket was announced. Gasp! We denizens of the past don't yet know where Wichita State was seeded, who they play in the first round, or who was placed in their region. But we can already say these things with confidence: The Shockers are better than their résumé, better than their seed, and a waking terror foisted upon whichever No. 1 or No. 2 was unfortunate enough to draw Wichita in a potential second-round matchup. Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp are two of the nation's best 3-point shooters sharing the same backcourt. Wing Markis McDuffie does basically everything well. Only Marquette and Kennesaw State shot it better from deep. Gregg Marshall's teams always guard like crazy. This one is really good. Yet the reasons the Shockers have been inevitably undervalued are not without merit: Every time the MVC champs played three obvious tournament teams (Louisville, Michigan State, Oklahoma State), they lost. Everything is on the table.
All contenders are equal, but some are more equal than others.
12. Oregon Ducks
With the obvious exception of Michigan (which was literally told to take cover as its airplane skidded off the runway Wednesday, a tough act to top) no team heard worse news last week than Oregon. Late Friday night, doctors informed Dana Altman that senior forward Chris Boucher had torn his ACL. It was a devastating turn for the sport's most unlikely success story. It also posed new questions about Oregon. No team blocked a higher percentage (17.7) of opponents' attempts this season; the lynchpin in that effort was gone. Could Jordan Bell, already the team's best all-around defender, somehow summon more? Could spot reserve Kavell Bigby-Williams (or, as Bill Walton calls him, "Bigby") step in? Meanwhile, the 6-foot-10 Boucher had attempted 101 3s this season, just seven fewer than star guard Dillon Brooks. How would the Ducks' spacing change? How different would its offense look? One game against Arizona in the Pac-12 final isn't enough to know the answers to these questions. We'll find out in the tournament -- and so, it seems, will Oregon.
11. Louisville Cardinals
Quiz time. Quick: When did Louisville last fail to show up for the Sweet 16? (No, last season's postseason ban doesn't count.) Ding, ding, ding: 2010. This, not coincidentally, was the last time Rick Pitino didn't preside over one of the nation's most soul-crushing defenses. The Cardinals ranked in the top five in adjusted defensive efficiency every season from 2011 to 2016. They won 17 games in five NCAA tournaments (plus, you know, a national title) in that span. What of these Cardinals, then? Louisville ranks No. 6 defensively per KenPom.com -- all good, right? Look closer: Since Feb. 1, Pitino's team has allowed 1.08 points per trip. Virginia Tech scored 90 in the Yum! Center in mid-February; Wake Forest scored 88 on the Cards on March 1. Donovan Mitchell is a brilliant high-volume scorer. Pitino is a peerless tactician. But if the Cardinals can't correct this uncharacteristic generosity, and fast, the Sweet 16 might be their ceiling.
10. Baylor Bears
Baylor was unranked in the preseason. No, wait -- it gets worse. Not only were the Bears unranked, the AP poll voters didn't pull a single lever in their favor. Not one! Before long, Baylor would reveal itself not just as a Top 25 team but one of the sport's best, led by one of its premier two-way players (forward/wing/extraterrestrial Johnathan Motley) and powered by one of the stingiest first-shot defenses the Big 12 has seen in years. It seems laughable to think there was a time when Indiana, Connecticut, Syracuse, Texas and Rhode Island were considered better teams than Baylor, but hey, doctors used to swear by bloodletting. Enlightenment's hard.
9. West Virginia Mountaineers
You don't need the long version anymore -- how Bob Huggins, after two down years, looked at his undersized roster and decided to make a drastic change. By now, Press Virginia isn't a novelty; it's who the Mountaineers are. And none of Huggins' post-remake teams has been quite as Press Virginia as this one. Not only do Jevon Carter & Co. force more turnovers per possession than any team in college hoops, they force more than any power-conference team in the past 15 years. ESPN's Basketball Power Index (BPI) has been fawning over Huggins' team all season; KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings shares the admiration. You already know West Virginia is good. The Mountaineers are still better than you think.
8. Arizona Wildcats
Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey once forbade his front office from likening prospects to NBA players of the same race. Great idea. Comparing players superficially is incredibly pervasive; it is lazy (at best) and misleading (at worst). So instead of saying that Lauri Markkanen -- Arizona's 7-foot European super-frosh who shoots 73 percent at the rim, leads his team in 3-point attempts and accuracy (43.4 percent), and mixes in the occasional unguardable wrong-foot pull-up -- reminds us a lot of Dirk Nowitzki, let's just say Markkanen is the closest thing college basketball has to That Dude. Markkanen carried Arizona's offense for months before Wildcats coach Sean Miller got sophomore guard Allonzo Trier back from a PED-related suspension. Now full strength, the Wildcats are a full-blown offensive terror.
7. UCLA Bruins
Just now tuning into college basketball? First of all, shame on you. Just kidding. It's totally cool. That said, you did kind of miss out: The 2016-17 UCLA Bruins were one of the most enjoyable nightly experiences this sport has offered up in years. Freshman guard Lonzo Ball -- yes, the kid whose dad (sigh) said he was better than Stephen Curry, and thus set him up for at least one Curry-administered ankle explosion when Ball gets to the NBA next season -- was even better than advertised. Beyond his shooting 72 percent from 2 (!!!) and 41 percent from 3, Ball's passing feel is once-in-a-decade-level stuff. The lights-out group around him (Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, T.J. Leaf, Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh) flows in smooth, kinetic unison. The results are regularly spectacular.
The Wild Card, Part II
6. Duke Blue Devils
In 2004, Mike Krzyzewski was offered a five-year, $40 million contract to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. Resisting the NBA sirens proved sage; he has since become the winningest man in Division I hoops history, added two national titles to his total (five), and is likely to be remembered as the greatest college basketball coach of all time. Besides, who needs all that drama ... oh. Real talk: Duke's 2016-17 season has been nothing if not dramatic, to a level that the early-aughts Kobe-Shaq-Phil triumvirate would be proud of. The preseason expectations were imperious. The injuries were debilitating. The Grayson Allen Saga (formal title) was humiliating. Even K himself missed games to undergo and recover from back surgery. Now, suddenly, they're back in the title conversation. Duke won four straight games and the ACC tournament title in Brooklyn this weekend, knocking off Louisville, North Carolina and Notre Dame along the way. Suddenly, all of the promise of the preseason -- a realized Jayson Tatum, an unguardable Allen-Luke Kennard backcourt combo, interior defense and rebounding that had been missing all year -- came rushing to the fore. But it was also four days. For months, Duke has been "turning" various "corners." Do you trust it now?
This season's most likely national champions. Emphasis on "most likely."
5. Kentucky Wildcats
In many ways, this Kentucky team is like any other John Calipari-era Kentucky team: The Wildcats are one of the youngest, least-experienced teams in the country. They're also one of the best. Precocious star freshmen (De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo) mixed with a holdover sophomore (Isaiah Briscoe), stalwart role-guy vets (Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins), championship-level defense, and championship aspirations. The template. The works. Same as ever. Not quite. This team is unlike any of recent Calipari vintage in one critical sense: It's so bleeping fast. From 2011 to 2016, the Wildcats ranked between 147th and 271st in adjusted tempo (per KenPom.com). This team ranks 16th. The Wildcats average 1.14 points per trip in transition (per Synergy scouting data) -- and they get into transition a lot. This -- not defense -- is the best reason to expect these Wildcats to show up in Phoenix in three weeks' time. Kentucky is always young and always good. Rarely is it this much fun.
4. North Carolina Tar Heels
Every superhero needs his theme music, and every legendary shot needs its Craig Ehlo: devastated, in disbelief, casting the triumph and joy at the center of the frame into the sharpest possible relief. A year ago, North Carolina was that Ehlo. The Tar Heels suffered one of the toughest losses in college basketball history last March, then waved farewell to heart-and-soul seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. One season later, Justin Jackson morphed into the ACC Player of the Year, Joel Berry II admirably stepped into Paige's shoes, and Kennedy Meeks was the tip of a frontline spear that rebounded its misses more often -- and generated more shots -- than any team in college basketball. North Carolina could have faded away. It hasn't lost a step.
3. Kansas Jayhawks
Kansas won its 13th straight Big 12 title this year. If you're of those "but how many NATIONAL titles have they won, hmmm??" people, may Bill Self have mercy on your soul. In men's hoops history only the late-1960s/1970s-era UCLA Bruins managed as many consecutive conference crowns, and they did so in a much different, less diffuse, less talent-rich era. (Fun fact: John Wooden wasn't even the coach for all 13. If you're wondering why Self was nominated to the Basketball Hall of Fame this year, well, there you go.) The point is: No matter what happens now, Kansas has accomplished something that even the eventual national champion won't ever come close to matching. It's insane. Frank Mason, Josh Jackson, and the rest of KU's cardiac coterie won't be happy with this season unless it ends with a win. But their achievements to date already occupy such high ground that even a force as powerful as the NCAA tournament won't wash them away.
2. Gonzaga Bulldogs
Duke's four-wins-in-four-days Barclays Center bum-rush unleashed a deluge of takes about why the Blue Devils deserved a No. 1 seed. More often than not, that No. 1 seed was Gonzaga's. Really? Going 32-1, beating Arizona, Florida and Iowa State on neutral floors, and punishing a really good Saint Mary's team on three separate occasions (plus, you know, losing once in 33 games) wasn't impressive enough for you? Are you not entertained?! Doubts about Gonzaga in March are one of college basketball's most mystifying memes. Doubts about this Gonzaga team -- which starts multiple high-major recruits, features an All-America point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss and arguably the nation's best center in Przemek Karnowski, brings a first-round draft pick (Zach Collins) off the bench, and plays the best defense of Mark Few's career -- won't suddenly vanish after the first weekend. But if you don't think this team is good enough to win a national title, you just haven't been paying attention.
1. Villanova Wildcats
Kris Jenkins is still here, still cranking 3s. Jalen Brunson transformed from a wide-eyed freshman to incredibly canny sophomore in less than a calendar year. Josh Hart, the most anonymous top player on any national title team ever, went from a selective cog to the most important, most efficient player in college basketball. Parts remain. The whole has changed. These Wildcats don't guard quite as well. They don't have a senior point guard like Ryan Arcidiacono, or the post-up fallback plan like Daniel Ochefu.
This Villanova team is basketball's future made real: four guards, sometimes five, moving and swinging and shot-faking and firing and playing every bit as well as the team that triumphed in the greatest national title game of all time. Before that game, before the world learned how wrong its definition of Villanova had been, we might have asked: Can this type of team win it all? Now we already know the answer.