If the NCAA tournament were an annual court case arranged to measure a conference's overall strength, and fans served as jurors, every season would end in a mistrial.
The prosecutors view the tournament as the SUV buried in the scrap yard of "Making a Murderer," undeniable proof of each league's makeup and true spirit, even when its results contrast with the progress of the previous four months. The defense acknowledges the Big Dance's standing as a perennial paradox, which often concludes with drama that is baffling even after young men with tears smeared on their cheeks snip the nets.
It's not a fair barometer of a team's season or a conference's wealth, but all agree that three weeks of chaos can stain a league's reputation.
If the Big 12 sends 70 percent of its league to the NCAA tournament, but five squads exit before the second weekend, as they did in 2015, the doubters will gather and question the league's pound-for-pound status for the next six months -- six years if Kansas loses early. If Kentucky reaches Houston, you'll see Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, smiling at NRG Stadium because a Final Four trip is a great comeback to critics of a conference that has underperformed.
What are the chances for each league to send a rep to the Final Four? Which program gives each conference the best chance?
Team with the best shot in 2016: Virginia
Most recent Final Four appearance: Duke 2015
Consider every problem that threatened Tony Bennett's program Jan. 30 at Louisville. Virginia committed turnovers on 25 percent of its possessions against Louisville's furious pressure. The Cavaliers retrieved just 25 percent of their misses. Yet the Cavaliers won by 16 points on the road because they harassed the Cardinals into 18 turnovers and made 66 percent of their shots inside the arc. Virginia is one controversial non-travel call at Cameron Indoor Stadium from a nine-game win streak. Malcolm Brogdon's balanced team owns wins over West Virginia and Villanova. In March, the Cavs won't face many opponents who surpass that duo or the Louisville team they defeated the past month at the Yum! Center.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Cincinnati
Most recent Final Four appearance: Connecticut 2014
Give us a moment to flip a coin because we're not comfortable with any of this. Cincy, like its colleagues in the American, remains tethered to the bubble, but Saturday's home win over Connecticut helped its cause. Our colleague John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths slotted Cincy as second in the conference behind SMU in efficiency margin (the difference between a team's offensive and defensive efficiency marks) and first among the league's postseason-eligible squads. There is nothing overwhelming about Cincy, but its American opponents have scored just .94 points per possession, and the team is second in the league in turnover rate (16 percent). We pick Octavius Ellis and the Bearcats -- also the name of a little-known 1960s Motown group -- to make the league's deepest run ... if Cincy makes the cut.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Dayton
Most recent Final Four appearance: UMass 1996 (George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011 were members of the CAA during their Final Four runs.)
We're not alarmed by the outcome of Dayton's 79-72 home loss to bubble riser St. Bonaventure on Saturday. First, Kendall Pollard (11.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG) missed his third consecutive game with a knee injury. Second, St. Bonaventure senior Dion Wright (7-for-11) and his teammates competed with the exultant demeanor a bubble team should show when it's seeking to erase a bad loss (to La Salle) and impress the selection committee. Dayton stayed with this desperate group until the final minutes. It was the same scenario in the previous loss, at Saint Joseph's. Both teams needed Dayton far more than the Flyers needed them. The Pollard situation would create more panic if Archie Miller had another six-man rotation, but Kyle Davis, Steve McElvene and Darrell Davis will all help Dayton deal with Pollard's potential extended absence. The Flyers could go far in the NCAA tournament.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Kansas
Most recent Final Four appearance: Kansas 2012
Ken Pomeroy's efficiency stats date back to the 2001-02 season. Since then, only one national champion has finished outside Pomeroy's top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency at the conclusion of a season: North Carolina in 2008-09 (No. 21). Kansas will enter this week ranked 21st in the category. Those Tar Heels owned an offense that excelled inside and outside the arc, much like KU's group this season. Plus, the Jayhawks enjoy a level of depth that few squads have matched. Deep into Saturday's win at Kansas State, Devonte' Graham -- the team's hero in a win at Oklahoma -- hit his first and only shot of the evening. The Jayhawks won a tough road game against their rivals without his offense. In the NCAA tournament, foul trouble and cold nights will hit the entire field. But KU's personnel positions the Jayhawks to resist the full brunt of those possible hurdles in the most critical moment of the season. Bill Self's squad could rep the Big 12 in Houston.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Villanova
Most recent Final Four appearance: Never (The new Big East was created in 2013, after the old league was dissolved.)
Maybe he needs a billboard or something. Schools do that for Heisman hopefuls. Maybe Nova should create one for Josh Hart, college basketball's Thelonious Monk, a player who hasn't matched the hype of his contemporaries in leagues with bigger profiles but no doubt possesses the same ravishing skill set. We focused on Hart in Nova's win over Butler on Saturday, and we just kept thinking that if this guy gets loose in the tourney and Nova remains defiant on defense (.91 PPP allowed this season, sixth in the nation) and nearly unstoppable at the rim (69.2 field goal percentage per hoop-math.com) and maintains its edge, why shouldn't Jay Wright's program make a trip to the Lone Star State in early April?
Team with the best shot in 2016: Michigan State
Most recent Final Four appearance: Michigan State 2015 and Wisconsin 2015
Come on a fantastic voyage with us to Valentine's Day. That afternoon, Michigan State held high-powered Indiana to just 1.00 PPP. Impressive. Indiana (second in raw offensive efficiency behind Duke) missed 62 percent of its shots inside the arc. Whoa. Thomas Bryant finished 4-for-11 on his 2-pointers. Huh? Bryant has made 71 percent of his 2s, fifth in the country, this season. If the Spartans neutralize their opponents' offensive aims in the tourney -- and they can -- and The Life of Denzel features more cheat-code stat lines (25.5 PPG, 10.2 APG and 7.2 RPG in his past four matchups), it's not a challenge to envision Tom Izzo engineering his eighth Final Four run in April. Michigan State could beat any team in America on a neutral floor right now.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Wichita State
Most recent Final Four appearance: Wichita State 2013
Wichita State's tough guys always validated Gregg Marshall's "Play Angry" mantra. Carl Hall, a rugged 6-foot-8 forward, finished with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 6 blocks in Wichita State's Elite Eight victory over Ohio State in 2013. Tekele Cotton won two MVC defensive player of the year honors during his time with the program. Darius Carter's 245-pound frame helped Wichita State battle in the paint. The Shockers don't have as many tough guys this season. But Ron Baker (13.8 PPG) and Fred VanVleet remain, and if the Shockers crack the NCAA tournament field, the senior duo's experience and will -- Wichita State won 12 in a row earlier this season -- could help the Shockers put together another fun rally in the tourney. This is it for that special duo. They're the MVC's best chance to reach Houston.
Team with the best shot in 2016: San Diego State
Most recent Final Four appearance: UNLV 1991
Again, we have to pick someone. And yes, the Aztecs sit atop the Mountain West, but what does that mean? The Mountain West is ranked 12th in Jerry Palm's conference RPI ratings, and SDSU's 1-4 record against the RPI's top 50 ain't all that. But Steve Fisher's team will likely earn the conference's lone bid, unless crazy things happen in the league tourney. The good news for the program is Jeremy Hemsley (13.6 PPG, 79 percent from the charity stripe, 35 percent from the 3-point line) is a franchise player who could blossom into an elite guard in the coming years. Three of SDSU's top four scorers are underclassmen. That's great for the future but troubling for the current postseason outlook. Still, the Mountain West's only Final Four or at-large hope is San Diego State.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Arizona
Most recent Final Four appearance: UCLA 2008
Since he arrived in 2009, Sean Miller has led the Wildcats to three Elite Eight appearances. For some, it's not enough. They want a trip to the Final Four. That's fair. But Arizona lost to UConn, the eventual national champion, in 2011's edition of the Elite Eight. In 2014 and 2015, Arizona lost to a Wisconsin squad that featured Duje Dukan and two other NBA athletes. That's a necessary consideration that critics ignore. This year, Miller does not have the NBA talent he has flourished in recent seasons, and injuries have been a problem. But Ryan Anderson, Gabe York and Allonzo Trier could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship in the most underrated coaching effort of Miller's tenure. His team looks ready to make a run next month. No Pac-12 squad is as equipped for postseason success.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Kentucky
Most recent Final Four appearance: Kentucky 2015
DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Julius Randle, Karl Anthony-Towns ... Derek Willis? Kentucky's frontcourt does not resemble the monstrous units that soared in Lexington in recent years. The first question about Kentucky's current frontcourt: Who will be healthy? The next question is one Wildcats fans would rather avoid: Can John Calipari rely on Skal Labissiere, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, Isaac Humphries and Willis to make an impact when the lights come on in March? Maybe not, but Calipari has bodies. That's a start. He also has the best point guard in America. Tyler Ulis (51 assists, nine turnovers in his past five games) deserves serious first-team All-America consideration. He's helping Jamal Murray (19.3 PPG, 40 percent from the 3-point line) blossom into a freestyling wing who just gets buckets. If his bigs stay alert in the half court and get back on defense consistently, he'll help them, too. He's the No. 1 reason Kentucky could make a run in the tournament and possibly represent the SEC in Houston.
Team with the best shot in 2016: Saint Mary's
Most recent Final Four appearance: San Francisco 1957
When the Gaels completed their first sweep of rival Gonzaga since 1995, they confirmed their status as the WCC's best shot at a Final Four run. The problem is the win probably created a scenario in which the winner of the postseason tourney gets the league's only ticket to the Big Dance. Saint Mary's defensive struggles (80th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com) could limit its stay in the tournament. But a squad that shoots 42.7 percent from the 3-point line (second in the country) and 55.9 percent inside the arc (10th) could get hot and win multiple games with the right draw.
Five non-Power 5 schools with the best odds to make a Final Four run
Valparaiso: Without Dillon Brooks' 26-point effort, Oregon would have lost to Valpo in late November. Oregon State, a bubble team, lost to Valpo two days later. Bryce Drew's team has proved it can handle opponents from the big leagues on the road. Alec Peters (16.5 PPG, 8.1 RPG), a 6-9 forward, is a terrible matchup for most squads. He's the anchor of a team that is No. 1 in raw defensive efficiency (.87 PPP allowed this season). This team is dangerous.
Arkansas-Little Rock: Right now, UALR is ranked 39th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, ahead of Saint Mary's (41), Butler (42) and Syracuse (44). How? A top-15 defense has been a significant factor in the Sun Belt king's rise to the top tier of the "Possible Sleepers You Should Track Now" list. Nonconference road wins over bubble teams San Diego State and Tulsa expanded the national profile of Chris Beard's team, which could make noise in the Big Dance.
Stony Brook: From RecruitingNation's scouting report of Stony Brook star Jameel Warney: "A dependable, mid-major big man who knows his role and plays it, he has the potential to be a very good pickup at that level, if he can get the motor running just a little bit more." Prophetic. The 6-8, 255-pound big man is ruining dreams in the America East Conference. He's averaging 18.8 PPG, 10.3 RPG and 3.1 BPG. Could the terrifying senior help a team that won 18 in a row earlier this season pull off an upset or two? Yep.
Monmouth: The dancing reserves are having fun. If you can't enjoy that, it's on you. But the attention on that group pushed this team's admirable performance to the background. That will change soon. Monmouth is a good team that is legitimately fighting for an at-large berth, a case backed by wins over Notre Dame and USC (UCLA and Georgetown lost to the Hawks, too, but that's not as significant). King Rice knows Justin Robinson is the best player in the MAAC and one of the best players in America. If it reaches the NCAA tourney, Monmouth will have the right attitude and a collection of talent that has already toppled big names.
Hawaii: The penalties stemming from Gib Arnold's tenure will block Hawaii from the 2016-17 NCAA tournament. The Rainbow Warriors aren't banned this season, though. They boast a respectable top-30ish defense, and they can score inside (54.3 percent on their 2s). They nearly knocked off Oklahoma in a three-point loss in December, when they made 51 percent of their shots inside the arc and grabbed 76 percent of Oklahoma's misses. Stefan Jankovic, Aaron Valdes and Roderick Bobbitt are all averaging double figures for interim coach Eran Ganot's team. Watch out for Hawaii.
If they were eligible ...
Could SMU make a Final Four run?
Some of the game's memorable Final Four participants relied on dynamic point guards who infected their entire rosters with their energy, poise and personality. That's who Nic Moore (16.5 PPG, 5.2 APG, 42 percent from the 3-point line) has been for this SMU team. He has the makeup of a star who would deliver if offered a chance to compete in the NCAA tournament.
A postseason ban will not allow it, and that's tough for a Mustangs squad that knows it could win multiple games in the Big Dance. Michigan, Tulsa and Colorado -- three teams SMU defeated in the nonconference season -- are comparable to the level of competition the Mustangs could have faced in the opening round. But losses in four of the team's past eight games have exposed the fragility of a defense (No. 101 in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom.com) that does not match the fourth-most efficient offense in America. That gap would eventually cost SMU against more balanced, elite competition in the NCAA tournament.
Projected hypothetical finish: Sweet 16
Damion Lee transferred to Louisville to compete in the NCAA tournament in his final season. But that dream died three weeks ago, so he and his teammates have shifted their focus to the pursuit of an ACC title. North Carolina controls the race now, but Louisville has a shot. The Cardinals' season will end soon, but what if they had a chance to dance? How far would they go? That's an impossible question without a finalized bracket. But these Cards, 4-2 in their past six games, have embraced the same cutthroat defensive edge that fueled the 2013 national title squad.
They've forced turnovers on 21.6 percent of their opponents' possessions (19th). But Rick Pitino's offense does not get the same push on the other end of the floor. They're a flawed offense that lives off Lee's efforts. Proof? He's 11-for-47 in Louisville's past four losses. But then games such as Saturday's win over Duke, in which Lee scored 24 points, make you wonder whether a talented wing and this intense defense could make a run. In 2014, Connecticut had a strong defense and Shabazz Napier. This feels like the kind of season when that might be enough, in the right draw, to reach Houston. The stars will own this field. Louisville certainly has one.
Projected hypothetical finish: Elite Eight