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What a difference a year makes

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A year ago the ACC was on its way to having three 1-seeds. The Big 10 had three schools headed for protected (top four) seeds. In the SEC, Kentucky (2), Tennessee (2) and LSU (3) were all Final Four threats. Buffalo was bulling their way to a six seed and was a trendy Sweet 16 pick. Syracuse had finally found a way to lift itself off the bubble and into an 8-seed. Gonzaga would join Duke, Virginia and North Carolina on the top line. Texas Tech made the Final Four.

As this season hits January, Duke, being Duke, is still one of the 1-seeds, and Gonzaga also has shown staying power at the top of the bracket. Kansas is back to its accustomed spot as a top seed, and Michigan State looks once again like a 2-seed. Auburn, fresh off a Final Four appearance, is a 2-seed, and Michigan is still a top-4 seed under new coach Juwan Howard.

But around those teams, there’s been chaos! Tournament staple North Carolina is nowhere to be found due to injuries. Kentucky, who lost at home to Evansville, is a middling 6. LSU is on the bubble, and Tennessee is below the bubble. Defending champ Virginia and runner up Texas Tech are both only 8-seeds today (and falling). Buffalo, without Nate Oats and their super seniors, is back in the MAC pack, needing a MAC championship to get a 13-seed or so. And I’m not even going to discuss my Syracuse Orange.

There’s a power vacuum, and it’s being filled by some teams that we don’t often see at the top of the bracket! Butler is fighting for a top seed right now. San Diego State has raced out to a great start and deserves the 2-seed it currently holds. Baylor, from the Big 12, joins SD State and after winning at Kansas this weekend, might rise even higher. West Virginia has turned things around, giving the Big 12 a third top 3 seed. Dayton in the Atlantic 10 has played its way into a top 4 seed. It’s been years since Penn State was a single-digit seed, yet here they are coming in as a 5 for the moment, alongside former mid-major favorite Wichita State.

There have been 10 AP polls as of this writing and we’ve had six different teams at the top of it. Gonzaga is #1 for now, three weeks running. Kansas, Louisville, Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State have all taken turns at the top, only to get knocked off. All remain in the top 14 in the poll, but Kentucky is the only one without a top 4 seed at the moment. But readers from last year know: the Selection Committee won’t care about the polls, they’ll care about the resumes. Who did you beat and where? Who beat you and where? Kentucky’s resume might have national titles going back to the 40s, but this year it says that they lost at home to Evansville and Utah, and that’s not what a top 4 seed does. Duke needs to watch itself too. That two-point loss to Stephen F. Austin isn’t hurting them today, but combine it to a loss or two to a low-end ACC team and it’ll cost them a seed line or two!

In other words, folks, this is a wide-open season. Powerhouses North Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky are having off years. Butler, San Diego State, and Dayton are filling the gap. And when you see teams you don’t often see sitting near the top of the bracket and a revolving door atop the polls, it’s a sign that the tournament will be even more unpredictable than usual. That’s not to take away from those teams. They’ve all earned their current positions, and this turnover at the top combined with the one-and-done format of the tournament is what makes college basketball so exciting. But who will YOU pick in March, if, say, Virginia sinks to a 10-seed, wins their first-round game, and faces San Diego State in the second round? If Evansville beat Kentucky, maybe Rutgers (Rutgers!) can in a 6-11 game! It’ll be fun to track this shifting landscape over the next few weeks!

Chris LaGrow is an OBSERVER contributing writer. Comments on this article can be sent to sports@observertoday.com

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