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NCAA tournament buzzword: mediocrity

Think a woman singing “One Shining Moment” is an upset? Consider this:

When CBS unveils the NCAA tournament bracket tonight, neither North Carolina, Connecticut, UCLA nor Indiana will be in it. Baylor and Vanderbilt could be No. 4 seeds, Butler and Temple could be No. 5 seeds, and Northern Iowa could be a No. 6.

Texas, which was the No. 1 team in the country two months ago, could drop as low as a No. 9 seed, and the fourth No. 1 seed, presumably Duke, wasn’t a lock for that spot less than two weeks ago.

As for the bubble, who’s really going to complain if Ole Miss, Seton Hall, Arizona State, Rhode Island, or Cincinnati doesn’t make it to the dance? They’re all the same – mediocre – anyway.

The madness of March is upon us, and this tournament, unlike a year ago, should be unpredictable because there aren’t many, if any, dominant teams in it. Basketball purists will point to the tournament bracket and say it is evidence of parity, but the fact is, there are no great teams like the one Carolina had last year, and there are few great players.

Power conferences like the Pacific-10 and the Southeastern Conference are down, and the best teams in the Big East, aside from Syracuse, aren’t as good as they were a season ago.

Just look at Villanova. A Final Four team last year. Losers of five of its last seven heading into the tournament this year.

“People like to say there’s parity,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said last week. “There’s no parity. That’s laughable. Parity is an excuse for losing. … It’s just one of those years where, at the end of the line, we’re talking about pretty average teams at best.”

That won’t make this tournament boring. Quite the contrary. It’s wide open. But if you love dominance, you won’t get that this year. Not here.

This year, two of the projected No. 1 seeds are good, but not dominant. Syracuse lost to Louisville twice and then checked out of the Big East tournament in the quarterfinals against Georgetown. Duke shared the ACC regular-season title with Maryland, but this isn’t a strong Mike Krzyzewski team. Even he would admit it.

Kentucky’s team is built on youth. Three of its starters – John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, and DeMarcus Cousins – are freshmen, and they are athletic and quick but inexperienced in tournament action.

Kansas is the favorite – balanced, with veteran guards and solid big men – and should be the No. 1 overall seed. After that? It’s anyone’s pick.

“I’ve said there’s no great team out there, and there’s not,” Bilas said. “There are some really good teams, but no one’s great. All you have to do is look at the Big East. With the exception of Syracuse, name a team in the top half of the league that’s as good as they were last year. Maybe West Virginia. Everybody else is not as good. Villanova is not as good. Pittsburgh is nowhere near as good. Louisville is nowhere near as good. When you say ‘down,’ people make it negative. The Big East is not quite as strong as it’s been, and it’s been strong.”

Bilas is not alone in his view.

“This year is one of those times where there is an equal opportunity amongst a number of teams,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “There’s not any clear-cut advantage. I don’t think it’s anything that’s crazy. It’s just one of those years that a lot of different teams can win it.”

Added Texas coach Rick Barnes: “When there’s a mediocre year, everybody wants to say it’s parity. Some years there are teams that are just all OK.”

So why are there no real favorites? Why is there parity, or mediocrity?

Dunphy said it’s the cumulative result of the NCAA’s decreasing the scholarship limit from 15 to 14 to 13 in the early 1990s. Others pointed to the relatively recent NBA rule forbidding players from jumping directly from high school into the league. Now, almost all players opt for a year of college hoops, rather than a season overseas, and the truly special freshmen have an immediate impact and leave a huge void.

Look at UCLA. The Bruins are a shell of the team that went to three consecutive Final Fours from 2005 to 2008. Why? Since 2007, UCLA has had five underclassmen, including freshmen Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday, leave early for the draft. Memphis selected Love fifth overall in 2008, and the Sixers picked Holiday 17th last year.

If the NBA eligibility rules were different, consider what UCLA would look like this year: Holiday would be a sophomore, Love a junior, and Russell Westbrook, the fourth overall pick in 2008, would be a senior. A team with those three players wouldn’t have gone 13-17 in the regular season.

“I just think the way it’s set up now, if you have a great team and a couple of the great players are young, they don’t stay long enough to create a dynasty, so it creates parity,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, who had the Wildcats in the Final Four last year. “I think it’s great for college basketball.”

For this tournament, Kansas, Syracuse, and Kentucky will be the favorites, but someone else – like Michigan State – could sneak in there and take it.

As for that upset at the very end of the dance? Jennifer Hudson will sing “One Shining Moment,” the first woman to sing CBS’s college basketball anthem. Of course, whom she’s singing about might be an even bigger upset.