Surprises, scares, and shocks lurk everywhere in the NCAA tournament — which begins today! Here are some of the devilish things that the 68 teams vying for the title will have to contend with.
When you're in a funhouse, you've got to be alert. You're walking along, feeling good, and then — BOOM! — something scary jumps out from a darkened corner or you step on a trap door. The NCAA tournament is the same way. A team can dominate in the regular season, and then it gets to the Big Dance only to find that unpleasant surprises await at every turn. Last year, Villanova was a No. 1 seed in the East regional, but then the Wildcats got bounced by unheralded North Carolina State in the second round. In 2014, Wichita State strolled through the regular season without a loss, but the Shockers got shocked by eighth-seeded Kentucky in their second game. In fact, in five of the last six years, a top seed has been upset in the second round. That's the beauty of the NCAA tournament: No one is safe. So the Oklahomas of the world need to take this piece of advice: Keep your eyes open at all times.
One of the most bewildering features in a funhouse is the hall of mirrors, which gives you the illusion of being surrounded by too many people to count. That's what it's like playing against the West Virginia Mountaineers, which makes them awfully dangerous this month. Sure, a powerful offensive performance can propel an underdog to an upset, but if a team wants to win the whole tournament it needs to be solid at both ends of the floor. Like West Virginia. The Mountaineers have the country's most smothering defense. Through their first 17 games, they led the nation in steals and were fourth in defensive efficiency, allowing just 86.4 points per 100 possessions. They're also in the top 30 in offensive efficiency. In other words: Look out for West Virginia.
Everyone loves jumping around in the ball pit, that is, unless you find yourself feeling smothered. That's one of the most common ways that an underdog pulls off an upset: overwhelming the favorite with a barrage of three-pointers. (In 2013, for instance, ninth-seeded Wichita State knocked off No. 1 seed Gonzaga by hitting 14 of 28 three-pointers.) So pay attention to teams like North Florida. The Ospreys are the kind of squad that can simply bury an opponent with threes. (An osprey is an eagle-like bird, which is why North Florida calls itself the Birds of Trey.) No team has made more treys this year than North Florida. In fact, the team's two top marksmen — Trent Mackey and Beau Beech — have made a combined 140 three-pointers. That's more than 260 teams have made!
Before you leave the funhouse, you're bound to encounter some floor tricks. The ground under your feet might move up and down, or side to side, making you feel disoriented. Well, that's what players in the NCAA tournament have to deal with every time they take the court. There's no such thing as a home game. Every matchup is contested on a neutral court. The effect is even more pronounced at the Final Four. Those games are played in domed stadiums, which are designed for football, not basketball. As a result, the shooting backdrops can be deceptive. Final Four games have a history of bad shooting, as players have to get used to the spacious settings. So don't be surprised if the most meaningful games aren't some of the prettiest.
Illustrations: Andrew Roberts