The NCAA Tournament is beloved for its unthinkable upsets. Every year, some highly seeded team loses a stunner to a squad we've never heard of, and the sports world has a new darling for a few weeks.
If I had to guess, I'd expect this will happen in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, perhaps several times. However, this year those losses won't actually be as ridiculous as we think. The elite teams in college basketball this season simply haven't been as "elite" as we should expect. Instead of a clear top line that's distinguished itself from everybody else, we simply have a lot of teams that are really good and nobody that's great.
Nobody in college basketball has really set themselves apart this year. Here are a few facts to demonstrate that fact.
-- Last year, we entered the NCAA Tournament with an unbeaten team, two two-loss teams and six three-loss teams. This year, everybody in college basketball has already lost at least four games entering the tournament. This is the first time since at least 1994 that every team in college hoops has four or more losses. (Honestly, I got bored of checking the standings year-by-year. It probably goes back farther.)
-- The key stat in Ken Pomeroy's data is Pythagorean rating, a figure that predicts a team's win percentage against an average Division I team. As of right now, the team with the highest Pythagorean rating is Kansas, with an expected win percentage of .9506 against an average Division I team. Since Pomeroy started tracking data in 2002, the best team in college basketball has never been rated this low. Last year, Kentucky finished the year with a .9757, and five teams placed higher than Kansas did this year.
-- The 1-seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament have a combined 23 losses, the most in NCAA history.
-- Top-10 teams in this year's AP poll lost 74 games, the most in poll history. Twenty-one of those games were to unranked teams.
Now let's take a peek at actual losses by the best teams in college basketball.
-- 1-seed, North Carolina: Lost to Northern Iowa, which only made the NCAA Tournament as an auto-bid
-- 1-seed, Kansas: Lost to Oklahoma State, which went 3-15 in Big 12 play.
-- 1-seed, Virginia: Lost to four teams that missed the NCAA Tournament: Georgia Tech, Florida State and Virginia Tech, plus George Washington, the fifth-best team in the Atlantic 10.
-- 1-seed, Oregon: Lost to UNLV, which finished 8-10 in the Mountain West, Boise State, which finished third in the Mountain West, and Stanford, which finished below .500 before firing its coach.
-- 2-seed, Michigan State: Lost to Nebraska, which finished 6-12 in the Big Ten
-- 2-seed, Villanova: Probably has the best "worst loss" of any team in the NCAA Tournament, to Providence, a 9-seed. The Friars lost to DePaul and twice to Marquette. The team with the best "worst loss" in college basketball has a two-step transitive loss to freakin' DePaul.
-- 2-seed, Oklahoma: Lost to Kansas State, which finished 5-13 in the Big 12.
-- 2-seed, Xavier: Lost two games to non-tournament teams, Creighton and Georgetown, both of which finished .500 or worse in Big East play.
We know that the best teams in college basketball are capable of losing to bad teams. That's because they've already done it.
With the exception of UNC and Nova, every 1- or 2-seed has already dropped a game to a non-tournament team. And UNC and Nova have lost games to lower-tier seeds as well.
It's still probable that all these teams make it through the first round unscathed. Don't expect a 1-seed to become the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed. All of these teams have at least a 92 percent chance of winning their first-round game, according to Pomeroy.
But these teams are more average than ever before. That means it's more likely that the best teams in college hoops suffer upsets this year than in normal years.
Nobody in college basketball is unbeatable this season. Crazy upsets happen in the NCAA Tournament every season. But this year, the upsets will be slightly less crazy. The unexpected is still unexpected, but it's slightly more likely this year than most.
Remember this when picking your brackets. Somebody has to win the NCAA Tournament, but every team in the field is extremely capable of losing a game, even to opponents with much lower seeds. If something shocking happens to the team you thought was going all the way, don't say we didn't warn you.