This is what's great about college basketball that you don't get in any other sport: the closer you get to the postseason, the more teams that have hope (unfounded hope in some cases, I grant you) for a berth in the NCAAs seems to increase exponentially. And this year takes that uncertainty that makes the sport so exciting this time of year to a level we haven't seen in quite a while. Not only do you have a crowd of teams trying to squeeze in to the field of 65, but this year, you have a host of teams that that have a real chance at making a championship run. The across the board parity along the college basketball landscape that has prevailed this year, in addition to the lack of a dominant team gives a bigger group of teams legitimate hope for reaching the Final Four.
Today was a perfect example of why there is no clear favorite. The #1 and #2 teams in the polls, Wisconsin and Ohio State played an underwhelming game for a matchup of such prominence, with neither team able to crack 50 points. The thing is though, this is the first big win of the year for the Buckeyes, who will likely be #1 in both polls as of tomorrow. They've been thumped by two other top 5 teams this year, Florida and North Carolina, both of whom will continue to be ranked behind Ohio State in the new polls.
Florida, the national champs, have struggled as of late, and while they will probably respond to Coach Billy Donovan lighting into them following their embarrassing loss to SEC bottom feeder LSU on Saturday, I don't believe the Gators will repeat. They've got the talent and the experience, but there's a reason why schools rarely repeat in college hoops - it's too hard to get through the pressure cooker of a 6 game single-elimination tournament two years in a row. Look at the last team that had a profile that was very much like the Gator team now - the 1997-98 Arizona Wildcats, led by Mike Bibby and Miles Simon. That was a team that won the championship a year ahead of schedule the season before, and was considered the odds-on-favorite entering the tournament the following year. But they ended up getting whacked by a streaking Utah team in the regional final that came in prepared and hungry. I think it's very possible that we could have a similar situation with Florida in this tournament.
In my opinion, the most solid team in the country, the one that should be considered the favorite among a muddled field, is UCLA. They were #1 in the polls for a number of weeks earlier in the season, and have no alarming losses. They lost by 2 to a very dangerous Oregon team, by 7 to a good Stanford team, and by 5 at West Virginia in a game they did well to get back into following a horrendous start. They have two of the best players in the country in Aaron Afflalo and point guard Darren Collison, and you know that with Ben Howland as their coach, they're going to play good defense. The cherry on top is their hunger to finish the job they got so close to last season when they got ambushed in the national championship game to the Gators.
Some of the other teams may be flashier and have bigger name stars, but the Bruins deserve the mantle of favorites in a crowd of flawed teams.