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No Obvious Favorites As NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Starts


You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR.

Every spring, you hear that almost anyone can win March Madness. Well, this year, it's true. There's no obvious favorite in this month's NCAA men's basketball tournament, at least a dozen contenders from schools big and small. And conference championships began today. So who knows which contender will fall on its face and which dark horse no one considered will emerge in the next two weeks?

We've got our own Mike Pesca here to talk about how the competition is shaping up. Hey there, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Hey. I'd say more than a dozen. I think it's even more open than that.

CORNISH: Well, that's good news. That's what makes it exciting, right?

PESCA: Well, last year, Kentucky was the odds-on favorite. The question was could anyone beat the mighty Kentucky? And sometimes, that does give a league or a tournament some juice. But when the answer is no, no one could touch a team, in retrospect, it seems maybe a little boring. So, yeah, some years are wide open. Some years you have the dominant team. This is definitely a case where there are no dominant teams.

CORNISH: Well, help me order this in my mind. I know that on the men side, Gonzaga is ranked number one. But, really, does that mean anything at this point?

PESCA: Well, hey, all credit to Gonzaga, they are a small school in Spokane who had built up a great basketball reputation, and it's deserved, and they should celebrate their number one ranking. But, no, I don't think that the basketball cognoscenti would say that they're necessarily so much better than Indiana or Michigan or let's go down the line to a school like Miami.

I mean, there are a number of good teams who, on any given day, as they say, could all beat each other. But Gonzaga has the fewest number of losses, and they're definitely a legitimate team. So props to Gonzaga. They'll probably get a number one seed in the tournament, which will help them along the way, doesn't mean too much beyond the first weekend's worth of play.

CORNISH: And if it's so wide open, does that mean a small school like Virginia Commonwealth or Butler, actually, wins the title?

PESCA: Well, absolutely, it could be, because Butler has gotten to the championship game twice in the last few years. I don't think it'll be Butler this year. They've lost three out of their last five. They haven't looked good. In fact, they were blown out by VCU. But that team that you put your finger on, I think Virginia Commonwealth is a really good team and certainly a very live team in the tournament.

I'll throw a couple more out there: Saint Louis is good, Creighton is good, Saint Mary's. But here's the problem that these teams that are outside the power conferences are going to run into - the NCAA tournament selection committee seeds all the teams. And, you know, reputation plays a big part of it.

Also, they use statistical methods that I think the top statisticians in the game would question how they seed the teams. And so you have a situation where these really good teams who should be seeded maybe fourth or fifth are going to wind up seeded seventh or eighth, and that will hurt their chances. So they always have the seeding issue to deal with no matter how well the Butlers of the world do in making final fours and finals.

CORNISH: And lastly, Mike, let's turn to the women. There's Baylor, and then, of course, everyone else. And I'm sure that has a lot...

PESCA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...to do with Brittney Griner.

PESCA: Yeah. There's Brittney Griner, and there's everyone else. I mean, she scored 50 against Kansas State. Now, Brittney Griner is 6-8. She's not just tall, she's a skilled player. She's unbelievably athletic. Against Kansas State, the tallest defender they had to throw at her was 6-foot-1, so that explains a little bit about the 50 points. And if you want to talk about the other elite of women's college basketball, last night, Notre Dame beat UConn, won the regular season Big East title, outlasted UConn in three overtimes.

UConn has gone on a string of Big East titles. Maybe Notre Dame will be the team that beats UConn in the Big East tournament this year. I don't know if they could stand up to Griner and Baylor, but they're certainly - both of those teams are very good, and they're looming.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Mike Pesca with our March Madness preview. Mike, thanks for talking with us.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.
Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.