Upside down, inside out as March Madness approaches

The precipice of March Madness is here, with conference tournaments soon tipping off amid what has been a wide-open year in men's college basketball.

There's an identity crisis happening in the 2019-20 NCAA men's college basketball season.

Up is down, down is up, and no team seems to really care about hanging onto the nation's top ranking in the polls.

A team from the Mountain West Conference could end up with one of the top-four seeds. The Pac-12 is barely a blip on the national radar, outside of the Oregon Ducks and Colorado Buffaloes. And the Big Ten could not only see the Penn State Nittany Lions dancing but the Rutgers Scarlet Knights as well. All while the likes of the North Carolina Tar Heels and the defending champion Virginia Cavaliers have suffered at the hands of a mediocre season.

This has all happened in the short span of the last four months and doesn't even touch on the fact the resurgence of the Big East, which has three teams in the top-15.

March Madness promises to be exactly that this season.

It's been present in season's past, between a 16-seed upsetting a no. 1 seed and a magical run by the Loyola Chicago Ramblers. These are two examples of Cinderella runs and upsets from a tournament that brings built-in drama.

This season, however, the feeling around the game is different. There is no clear-cut team dominating opponents, no superstar like Zion Williamson to attract the nation's attention. (If we understand anything about this time of year, though, it's a certainty a player or two will emerge to fill the void.)

Even when one of the traditional powerhouses, like the Duke Blue Devils, seems to get going, they inexplicably suffer losses to lesser opponents.

Wins this time of year are no guarantee. Conference tournaments are ready to begin, with teams fighting to be one of the 68 selected for the Big Dance. Upsets will happen, teams will see their hopes dashed, and a champion will be crowned.

And I'm here for it all.

Projected #1 seeds

One final weekend in the regular season and conference tournaments await. As it stands now, here are my projected number one seeds.
  • Kansas Jayhawks (25-3)
  • Baylor Bears (25-2)
  • Gonzaga Bulldogs (28-2)
  • San Diego State Aztecs (27-1)
The Jayhawks have clawed their way through off court distractions and losses to three-ranked teams to rise again to the top of the rankings. Duke, Baylor, and the Villanova Wildcats are their only blemishes. The Baylor loss was back in early January and the Jayhawks have won 13 straight.

Kansas is playing with urgency and consistency and, with their strength of schedule, might be the most battle-tested team among the group. This includes center Udoka Azubuike. Azubuike is averaging 13.4 points and 10.4 rebounds, but has leaped to another level the last two games. Against Baylor and Oklahoma State, Azubuike has scored 42 points, pulled down 35 boards, and only missed three shots (17-20) in the process. If Azubuike continues at this pace, Kansas will take home the title.

The Bears have been just as good -- if not better -- than the Jayhawks for much of the season. Baylor lost by three points to Washington in the second game of the season, then promptly won their next 23 games. The streak was ended with a three-point loss to Kansas last Saturday.

Baylor relies on an efficient offense and a stingy defense that allows only 58.7 points per game, good for sixth in the nation. They are similar, in ways, to Texas Tech of last season without quite the same firepower. Still, Baylor has a good chance at making a deep run come March.

Another year and yet another WCC regular-season title for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. One could easily dismiss this with a wave and a yawn, except Gonzaga was supposed to so easily be back at this level.

The Bulldogs lost to of their top players to the NBA and the conference has been improved. Three other teams have crossed the 20-win plateau, including the BYU Cougars, who delivered Gonzaga only their second loss of the season.

Despite the stronger conference competition, Gonzaga only lost once (with one game remaining plus the tournament). We're used to seeing Gonzaga power their way to a conference tournament title but it might not come as easy this season. As long as the Bulldogs reach the conference title, a No. 1 seed will remain theirs.

Currently ranked fifth, the Aztecs are still penciled in as a No. 1 seed by some and a second-seed by others. They were marching towards an undefeated season before being upset at home last week by the UNLV Runnin' Rebels. UNLV only lost by four the first time the teams met this season, one of only five conference games before the loss that the Aztecs hadn't won by more than 10.

The Aztecs have a balanced offense led by Malachi Flynn (16.9 ppg, 5.1 apg) and a defense ranked third in the nation at opponents points per game (58.6). 

If San Diego State had come through the regular season unscathed, an assumption could have been made that even a championship game loss wouldn't affect receiving a top seed. Now, it make take a tourney title to hold onto that chance.

That's because the Dayton Flyers are in the mix as are the Maryland Terrapins, Florida State Seminoles, and Duke.

Selection Sunday is on March 15.

photo credit: flickr.com

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