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You’ll go mad trying to pick March Madness’ best team this year

Marcus Paige of the North Carolina Tar

Marcus Paige of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts during their game against the Boston College Eagles at Dean Smith Center on January 30, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Credit: Getty Images / Streeter Lecka

It’s March, and you know what that means: Millions of sports fans — and sports media members — becoming overnight experts on college basketball, a subject most of us pay scant attention to the other 11 months of the year.

Such is the strange place the game fills on the sports calendar — a brief ray of sunshine during which familiar coaches and TV analysts emerge from the shadows to entertain and inform us as we sweat our brackets.

But this year the challenge is greater than ever as we enter the conference tournament phase following several months during which games mostly existed as cable-TV filler.

For one thing, the player you are most likely to have heard of, LSU's Ben Simmons, might not even make it to the NCAAs, thanks to his team’s persistent mediocrity.

For another, even if you had been watching since November, you would have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in the coming weeks.

Many experts predicted before the season that it would establish a new standard for parity and unpredictability. That turned out to be an understatement.

The polls have been on spin cycle, most recently with seven of the top 10 on The Associated Press list losing last week.

No one in the Top 25 has fewer than four losses; at a corresponding point last year there were nine (9!) Top 25 teams with fewer than four losses.

Then there’s this: Duke and Kentucky have eight losses apiece.

The SEC fined Vanderbilt $100,000 after students stormed the court to celebrate a victory over Kentucky last Saturday.

Sure, it was a safety thing, but perhaps there also was principle involved. Anyone storming the court after beating this Kentucky team deserves a fine.

(The parity seems not to have trickled down to some major-conference locals. St. John's is 1-16 in the Big East, which is one game better than Rutgers’ record in the Big Ten.)

There are assorted theories for all of this, including the simple fact that over the decades the depth of talent in the country and world continues to expand.

Another is that the lack of traditional big men among this season’s top teams — certainly so compared with last year — has evened the field.

Some of it surely is just cyclical and coincidental.

Thursday I turned to ESPN’s Dick Vitale for his take, and he said there are a couple of dozen teams that could win it all, far more than usual. But why?

“I started from the first week and said this year is going to be a theme of unpredictability,” he said. “I think one of the key reasons obviously is the fact it is such a senior-dominated year, and it’s great to see — all of these seniors that are performing so well.

“You’ve got the kid Buddy Hield [of Oklahoma], who would be my Player of the Year. You think about Marcus Paige [of North Carolina], Brice Johnson [of North Carolina], you go down the list and, I mean, it’s incredible. Kyle Wiltjer out at Gonzaga. So many. Malcolm Brogdon down at Virginia . . . I think it’s great to see this. [Georges] Niang at Iowa State. I think all that has played a part, not [having] the turnover that we’ve had in the past.

“And I think another situation is where so many of the kids that came to college with big buildups as high school phenoms really haven’t lived up to it and become the dominant forces that many thought they would be like in the past. You take Kentucky, for example. Everyone had [freshman] Skal Labissiere as either one or two in the [NBA] Draft. Well, he’s fighting for playing time right now at Kentucky.

“I think all of that has played a part in the unpredictability. I mean, a No. 3 seed is as good as a No. 1 seed. They’re so close it’s unreal.”

According to DePaul mathematics professor Jeff Bergen, the odds of correctly picking all 63 games in the main draw of the NCAAs are one in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.

This season, that might be a bit optimistic.

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