- Resident college basketball bracketologist for ESPN
- Contributor to SportsCenter, ESPN Insider
- Published first public bracket in 1995
Was it only last season when Gonzaga won every game? When we always knew the name of the nation’s No. 1 team? When Bracketology was easy?
Those were the days …
The new season is barely a month old and we’re about to have our fourth top team in the AP Top 25 poll. We can thank Rutgers star Ron Harper Jr., for the half-court heroics, and we can conclude — after just four weeks and three days — that it’s going to be one of those years.
Purdue’s loss at Rutgers brings a premature end to the Boilermakers’ first-ever week at the top of the national rankings. Defending national champion Baylor will be next on the hot seat, provided the No. 2 Bears survive what figures to be an epic challenge from visiting No. 6 Villanova on Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET, ABC).
Those with long memories recall just how close the short-handed Wildcats came to ending Baylor’s title turn in the Sweet 16 last March. The Cats are back to full strength with Collin Gillespie running the show, so the Bears are no guarantee when Monday’s poll results are released.
In the meantime, Purdue will be scratching its collective head all the way back to West Lafayette. The Boilermakers were in no way the better team Thursday night but looked ready to escape Piscataway on a Trevion Williams layup with four seconds to play.
Harper, though, had other ideas. And he resurrects the Scarlet Knights’ season in the process. The guys from Jersey were bumping along at 4-4, losing to the likes of Lafayette and UMass and by 35 points in their Big Ten opener at Illinois. The thought they might be ready to upset the best Purdue team in decades was never a serious consideration.
The good news for the Boilermakers is that one loss doesn’t preclude anything. Not a No. 1 seed, not a legitimate run at an NCAA championship, not even a reprise of their No. 1 ranking.
Heck, if Villanova beats Baylor and the Boilermakers hammer NC State on Sunday, maybe the voters forget about the last second of the Rutgers game. It’s enough to give a voter — not to mention a bracketologist — a headache.
Speaking of which, the rules require us to have four No. 1 seeds in the next bracket. Heading into the weekend, that puts Baylor (South Region) as the overall No. 1 seed. The Bears are followed, in order, by Duke (East Region), Gonzaga (West Region) and the aforementioned Boilermakers (Midwest Region).
One could argue almost any order, in fact, or even Kansas or UCLA returning to the top line. But with a handful of one-loss candidates in the mix, this analyst prefers to measure the quality of those losses. Duke gets the nod at No. 2 over Gonzaga, having beaten the Zags. The Blue Devils also slot ahead of Purdue, as their loss at Ohio State isn’t the same as the Boilermakers losing at unranked Rutgers. And, for me, the manner of Purdue’s loss is such that falling off the top line completely isn’t reasonable.
All we really know is that the top teams will be playing a lot of checkers between now and March. And the identity of the last piece to make king is considerably more uncertain than it was a year ago.
In other words, it’s business as usual in college basketball. We now head into another topsy-turvy weekend with last year’s champion at the top of the heap. Can Baylor book a long stay and defend its title?
If the first four weeks of this season are any indication, don’t bet on it.
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