Eric Prisbell, USA TODAY Sports
The national obsession that is the NCAA tournament arrives this weekend, a steady presence that will own the airwaves, sap your free time and culminate with the casual fan at your office winning the bracket jackpot.
Or that's the way it usually goes with March Madness.
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This year, though, has been anything but typical. A volatile college hoops season defined by unprecedented parity and uncertainty atop the polls is setting up to deliver the most wide-open, unpredictable NCAA tournament in its 75-year history.
Indeed, coaches who have been drawing up X's and O's before their players were born say they've never seen a season like this. The tournament, they agree, could be one for the ages.
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The intoxicating combination of heart-stopping finishes and inexplicable outcomes has made obsessing over this journey a rite of spring in America, where work productivity crawls for three weeks as college basketball diehards and casual observers alike become fixated on a single bracket. Millions of dollars will change hands well beyond the gambling mecca that is Las Vegas.
When the 68-team tournament field is unveiled Sunday evening, and $5- and $10-dollar office pools begin to gel, expect some real diversity in the Final Four brackets. And when viewers settle in to watch a dizzying lineup of games on television or their tablets, they should buckle up for a wild ride.
"This is the most balance among the top 30 to 40 teams in the country," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told USA TODAY Sports. "There are a lot of teams out there as potential deep run teams in the tournament, much more -much more- than any other season that I can remember."
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To illustrate the parity, coaches say if last year's tournament had been played 10 different times, a dominant Kentucky team (which won the national title) would likely have won the majority of them, with a North Carolina team at full strength possibly winning a few.
If this season's NCAA tournament were played 10 times, how many different winners would there be?
"Ten," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "Ten different winners. Absolutely."
That is why Kentucky coach John Calipari has been emphasizing with his team what a unique opportunity exists this season if the defending champion Wildcats can shake off their season-long inconsistency and squeeze into the tournament. The way Calipari sees it, as many as 40 teams - far more than ever before --- have a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four in Atlanta the first week of April.
1983 all over again?
Thirty years after the late Jim Valvano led North Carolina State on one of the most improbable national championship journeys in history - a No. 6 seed with 10 losses toppling two No. 1 seeds along the way - the elements could be in place for another unlikely champion to emerge from regular season obscurity and shock the basketball world.
"You know what is crazy about it?" Calipari said. "We could have the same kind of team win it this year. That was not happening last year. There were only two or three teams winning the national title last year. It was not happening. Sorry. This year, you can have the same kind of team that Jimmy V had."
Coaches say it's not out of the realm of possibility for other bracket-busting achievements to occur. Though a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said that if it is ever to occur, this will be the season, when the gap between the elite teams and everyone else is as small as it has ever been. He also said a double-digit seed could win the national championship for the first time.
Calling this season "as upside down as I have ever seen it," Mike Bobinski, the chairman of the NCAA tournament selection committee that will select and seed the teams, said the "unpredictable nature of the tournament is what makes this event what it is, and I think we will be in for all of that and then some this year."
March Madness comes with its own vernacular, which includes terms like "mid-major" program for a team that hails from outside a major conference and "Cinderella" team for an upstart that has a fairy tale run through the tournament's early rounds.
Perhaps it's appropriate that the top-ranked team in the USA TODAY Sports coaches poll is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, who call Spokane, Wash., home and play in the lightly regarded West Coast Conference, were dubbed the quintessential Cinderella team when they reached the Elite Eight in 1999. Since then, Gonzaga has established itself as a national power while tossing aside the mid-major moniker.
"I think that term (mid-major) has really become obsolete," Indiana coach Tom Crean said.
Why the parity?
College basketball has seen a leveling of the playing field for well over a decade.
The most talented players are often one-and-doners, playing their freshmen year before bolting to the NBA. Though the marquee programs -- namely Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA -- often possess the best freshmen, they are young and prone to stumbles against veteran teams from outside the major conferences.
To reach the Final Four in 2006, 11th-seeded George Mason upset three schools - North Carolina, Michigan State and Connecticut - that have now won a combined six national titles in the past 14 seasons.
"George Mason, when you have kids who stay four or five years, by the time they are juniors or seniors they are so far ahead of these great freshmen," said SMU coach Larry Brown, who has won a national title and an NBA championship.
Krzyzewski, too, emphasizes the importance of continuity: "Old with talent can beat young even with a little bit more talent, just because of the experiences and the road you have to travel to win the whole thing."
Veteran teams from major conferences this season, such as Kansas, which starts four seniors, and Miami, which has five seniors, are rare.
Add to that coaching, which is as good as it ever has been outside major conferences. Led by two young, fast-rising coaches, Butler reached back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011, and VCU made the 2011 Final Four as an 11 seed. Both schools will be in this year's tournament, and both are still stewarded by the same thirty-something coaches, Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart.
"You don't have to go," Boeheim said. "You can get great players, you really can. And those schools are rewarding them. They are paying them. They realize they have good jobs because there are enough players out there that did not get highly recruited that are really good."
The parity is felt most profoundly in the NCAA tournament, where Krzyzewski said it is easier to lose than ever before. To that point, before last year's tournament, a No. 15 seed had upset a No. 2 seed just four times. Then it occurred twice last season, with Norfolk State stunning Missouri, and Lehigh ousting Duke.
During this regular season, two results have been on par with those jaw-dropping outcomes, serving perhaps as harbingers for what's to come over the next three weeks. TCU, which had lost all but one conference game by double digits, knocked off No. 5 Kansas in an outcome that was the equivalent of a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 seed. A few weeks later, No. 4 Michigan lost at Penn State, another team that had been winless in conference play.
A post-upset era
The NCAA defines an upset as a team beating an opponent whose seed is five or more spots lower -- such as a 6 seed knocking off a 1, or a 12 seed defeating a 5. But with this tournament, we might be entering a post-upset world, where parity is so prevalent that any team has a reasonable expectation to beat any other team.
"I don't know if I have ever seen an NCAA tournament field like this, where there will not be major upsets," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I think there will be less major upsets than there have ever been. I think there will be minor upsets. A 7 seed beating a 2 should not be considered a major upset at all this year."
Added North Carolina coach Roy Williams: "The word 'upset' is so overused, it is ridiculous."
It is why Baylor, an erratic team that clung to slim NCAA tournament hopes, could pummel Kansas by 23 points last Saturday.
Look around the country and you won't find any great team, none on par with 2012 Kentucky's freshmen-centric team or 2009 North Carolina's overpowering team of veterans. Instead, several formidable but slightly flawed teams have been taking turns atop the polls.
You won't find a transcendent talent like former Kentucky star Anthony Davis or former Texas star Kevin Durant. There are several very good players, none of whom is guaranteed to be an NBA all-star, said Jonathan Givony ofDraftExpress, a web site that analyzes NBA prospects and projects the league's draft.
"Many years ago, some experts said the one-and-done will ruin the college game, the college game will be no good, which is absolutely the opposite," Boeheim said. "The college game is stronger because you have more balance. You have more good teams. Every state has a team that can win --everystate!"
All of which makes filling out a winning NCAA tournament bracket more challenging than ever. From major conferences like the Big East and Big Ten to less recognized leagues like the WCC and Atlantic-10, more teams than ever harbor realistic hopes of cutting down the nets in Atlanta on April 8.
"It is probably good for college basketball because there is no one you can pencil into the Final Four," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "It tickles me when I hear all the prognosticators, all the guys predicting this or that, because nobody knows this season. Nobody knows."
Contributing: Nicole Auerbach