The men’s college basketball season started off strange, with a November full of unranked teams taking down top-10 favorites. Then schools outside the typical blue bloods took up residence in the polls. Now, with Selection Sunday only five weeks away, the season is barreling toward a chaotic finish. Nobody has busted any brackets yet, but there’s reason to expect that we’re in for an NCAA Tournament unlike any other.
By now, the unforeseen squads at the top of the landscape have cemented themselves, and the underachieving household names aren’t coming back. The result is a bracket that could see in its top half an undefeated San Diego State, an offensive juggernaut in Dayton and three teams from the West Coast Conference1 — as many as from the famed ACC.2 Such is the case in the latest bracket projection from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Lunardi’s current bracket calls for the most inexperienced, least decorated group of tournament favorites since the Big Dance expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The 32 programs on the top eight seed lines as of Friday have just 852 NCAA Tournament wins3 to their names in that time frame. That’s a record low, thanks to a bizarre cast of characters: Rutgers with zero wins since 1985, Colorado with just two and Houston, Penn State and St. Mary’s with only three each. The notable absences: North Carolina (91 wins since 1985), Connecticut (55) and Syracuse (54).
In this bold new world, the likes of San Diego State, Dayton and Brigham Young are all rated better in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings than an 18-5 Kentucky team and a 17-6 Villanova team. The Aztecs, still going strong at 24-0, could be the Mountain West’s first No. 1 seed if they win out.4 Dayton could be the Atlantic 10’s first team seeded first or second since the top-seeded St. Joseph’s team led by Jameer Nelson in 2003-04. The WCC has never had three teams seeded eighth or better, as it could this year with Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU.
The numbers measure parity in a variety of ways, but here’s one: Through Sunday’s games, the top 40 teams on kenpom.com had a combined adjusted efficiency margin, or the total number of points the teams would be expected to outscore an average Division I team in 100 possessions, of 798. That’s the fourth-lowest total for the top 40 teams5 since 2002, the first year for these ratings. For now, Kansas is holding on to the top spot in adjusted efficiency at 30.06, which makes the Jayhawks the lowest-rated No. 1 team in the metric since 2006.
How did we get here? Credit the current top teams for breaking into the first tier. San Diego State deploys three transfers as starters, including star point guard Malachi Flynn. Dayton has an All-American candidate (and the country’s best dunker) in Obi Toppin. And Baylor, the nation’s No. 1 team, beat Kansas in Lawrence for the first time in 18 tries, started 10-0 in the Big 12 and has won 20 straight overall. The program’s NCAA Tournament record since 1985, excluding play-in games, is 11-9, and the Bears have never made the Final Four. (Neither has San Diego State, for that matter.) A No. 1 seed quartet of San Diego State, Baylor, Gonzaga and Kansas would hold just 136 all-time tournament wins to its name, 85 of those by Kansas. That ties the No. 1 line of 20146 for the least established group of top seeds in the past 30 years.
What does that mean for the results in this year’s tournament? It’s impossible to predict, of course — four No. 1 seeds per year provide too small of a sample. But Lunardi’s 32 projected top-eight seeds, in their histories, are 852-522 (.620) in the NCAA Tournament, totaling the lowest winning percentage since 2010. In that tournament, three double-digit seeds7 reached the Sweet 16, plus No. 9 Northern Iowa after a second-round upset of Kansas. A No. 5 seed, Butler, danced all the way to the national title game, where it lost to perhaps the most predictable champion: Duke.
The road is open for another Butler, but that road is rocky. As ESPN.com’s Keith Lipscomb pointed out last week, to win the national championship, San Diego State would have to win as many games in one tournament as it has in all of its previous tournament appearances combined. Only six teams in the past 30 years have reached the Final Four with six or fewer NCAA Tournament wins in school history under their belts since 1985. Meanwhile, there are seven such teams8 projected as No. 8 seeds or better in Lunardi’s bracket — giving those seven unknowns at least an outside chance of finding a path to the Final Four. Any of those teams could give us the biggest shock of an already surprising season.
CORRECTION (Feb. 11, 2020, 12:15 p.m.): A previous version of this article said that Dayton had never appeared in a Final Four. The Flyers played in the national title game in 1967.