Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski against North Carolina at Cameron...

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5 in Durham, N.C. Credit: Getty Images/Jared C. Tilton

Two years ago, there was silence.

Last March, there was the squeak of sneakers and the thump-thump of a basketball in mostly empty arenas. This year? Expect pure madness.

For the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the men’s NCAA Tournament will return to its former decibel-defying glory as arenas are once again allowed to be filled to capacity.

But that’s not the only thing set to make this big dance into a grand ball: With baseball's Opening Day delayed to April 7, sports fans will no doubt be happy to scratch their itch with college basketball.

Sports betting in New York became legal in January, so that adds an extra layerThis college basketball season has produced a cadre of more than a dozen top teams who reasonably have a shot to make deep runs, and even to win the title.

So strap in, grab your brackets, and be ready to see a whole lot of the Loyola nun on your Twitter timeline. It’s time for March Madness.

So, who’s the favorite anyway?

Your guess is as good as any, though Gonzaga is the only true lock for a No. 1 seed.

But it’s not as easy as all that. Call it chaos or call it parity, but Upset Saturday two weeks ago proved there are no sure things this championship season, especially among the best of the best.

Feb. 27 rocked the college basketball world, as the top six teams in the AP men’s basketball poll all lost. According to ESPN Stats & Info, it’s the first time even the top five teams lost on the same day since the poll began in the 1948-49 season. Yup, that means Gonzaga, too, which lost to No. 23 St. Mary’s to break a 34-game conference winning streak. In total, seven top-10 teams fell that day, though six of those losses came against ranked opponents.

That said, there are certainly strong candidates for the other No. 1 seeds. Other than Gonzaga, Arizona is another relatively safe bet for a top seed. After three years of not making the tournament, the Wildcats won 12 of their final 13 regular-season games behind one of the best offenses in the country and were stewarded by Pac-12 Player of the Year Bennedict Mathurin and conference Coach of the Year Tommy Lloyd, who earned the honor in his first season as a head coach.

Baylor and Auburn are also likely possibilities for the top seed, though Kansas is a very credible contender, too.

What about the nun (and the other story lines)?

Of course, March Madness isn’t just about the best of the best. Atmosphere, intriguing narratives, and underdog triumphs all contribute to the melange that makes the tournament resonate with so many.

But being among the best while also having a compelling story line doesn’t hurt, either. For that, you need look no further than Coach K, Duke’s iconic Mike Krzyzewski, who, at 75, is retiring at the end of this season.

Duke's projected seed is somewhere around second, and Krzyzewski will no doubt be looking to add to his total as the winningest coach in Division I history. He’s won the tournament five times in his previous 41 years as Duke head coach, and, regardless of what happens, he no doubt hopes his postseason farewell is better than his regular-season one. The Blue Devils lost in an upset to rival North Carolina and, after, assistant Chris Carrawell refused to shake the hand of UNC coach Hubert Davis. ESPN later indicated it was because Duke didn’t believe North Carolina had shown their rival enough deference.

Meanwhile, Loyola and 102-year-old Sister Jean, the superfan nun who rose to prominence during the Ramblers’ 2018 Cinderella bid, is coming back. Sister Jean, the team’s school chaplain and unofficial captain, was actually able to attend the NCAA Tournament last year and, USA Today reported, is in good health and will be there this year, too. Loyola earned its automatic bid last Sunday in the Missouri Valley Tournament championship victory over Drake (coach Drew Valentine gave Sister Jean part of the net).

In decidedly less fun news, this tournament will also come on the heels of Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s reinstatement. Howard was suspended five games after hitting Wisconsin assistant coach Joel Krabbenhoft in the face in the postgame handshake line. Wisconsin is projected to be among the top seeds and, with Michigan on the bubble, the Wolverines could get an 11, 12 or 13 seed, making a rematch possible.

Local flavor

Alas, New York-based fans will have to find non-local teams to glom onto. After losing to Rider in the MAAC tournament, Iona will almost certainly be a non-factor. Jim Boeheim's Syracuse will also be absent after losing in the second round of the ACC Tournament. Stony Brook was barred from the America East Tournament after its decision to move to the CAA and won’t win an at-large bid. Hofstra lost its chance after getting eliminated from the CAA Tournament in the quarterfinals.

Then there’s St. John’s. After a season of underperformance that was nonetheless marked by bouts of brilliance, the Red Storm’s only shot at an NCAA berth was the Big East title. No. 7 St. John’s gave fans hope with a thorough drubbing of DePaul — a sign of what this team was capable of at its best — but lost in a second-round heartbreaker, 66-65, to No. 2 seed Villanova.

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