NCAA tournament 2016: Welcome to the Year of the Slippery Throne


If you think 2016 was rough on No1, try Rome 238 AD. It was a bumper year for assassins, but a brutal slog for the boys at the top: , officially. The first one, Maximinus Thrax, made it five months before his head was cut off and stuck on a pole. The second agreed to take the throne if he could rule jointly with his son (emperor No3). On Day 20 of their reign, the aforementioned son, Gordian II, was killed in combat. Upon hearing the news, Dad hung himself. The joint-emperor thing was tried by the senate again, but that experiment only lasted 99 days, after which the praetorian guard said, “To hell with it” (or its Latin equivalent) and arrested both rulers, stripped them naked, dragged them through the streets, and eventually killed them. Historians came to regard 238 as the “Year of the Six Emperors,” one of the more curious windows in the grandeur that was the Roman empire.

At least Gordian I and II managed to hold on at the summit for three weeks. Which is more than you could say for John Calipari this winter.

In a metaphorical sense, college basketball’s 2015-16 narrative stole more than a few notes from 238 AD’s playbook. Minus the beheadings, of course.

Welcome to The Year of Parity, The Year of the Senior, The Year of the Slippery Throne. Over the last five months, the No1 ranking in the Associated Press poll has passed around among six different schools, something Kentucky’s Wildcats had held all to themselves – preseason poll to postseason poll – the year before. Which, as it turns out, was actually one short of the all-time AP record for most schools to reach No1 in a single campaign – seven – set in 1982-83.

The top 10 in the 7 March AP poll had accumulated, collectively, 54 losses. On the first of February, top five teams had piled up 23 setbacks between them, the most ever by that point. A ranked Duke squad lost to three straight unranked foes for the first time since 1968.

“Obviously,” Blue Devils guard Matt Jones told reporters in January, “we can lose to anybody, anytime, even when we’re at home.”

And if there’s a theme for the 2016 NCAA Tournament, the thesis statement of a season, it’s that. You can lose. All of you. To anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.

OK, maybe not to the 16 seeds.

But the rest, chin up. The Big Dance is upon us, and even the giants are trying to make it work with two left feet.

The glass-half-empty version is that everybody ­– Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, Oklahoma – has flaws. If you like chaos, it’s the glass-half-full version, too. According to , the four No1 seeds averaged a of .9379. In 2015, the four No1s averaged a .9621; the year before, it was .9444. Bracketville 2016 doesn’t have a lead-pipe-cinch No1 NBA draft pick (LSU’s Tigers, led by wunderkind Ben Simmons, didn’t make the field), nor an unbeaten giant swatting serfs away like so many flies.

What it does have is a lot of very, very good, and not much great. Most of the schools in the 2016 field are so tight, the gap between them so minute, you could practically shingle a house with the field. If you thought January looked like it was dropped on its head from a 40-story high-rise, then get ready to buckle up.

Every team can lose. All of them. To anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.

If conference tournaments – of the 13 completed by 10 March, the No1 seed had been knocked out in 12 of them – bordered on the absurd, then the Big Dance has the goods to be positively Looney Tunes, right?

“I would say yes,” offers Pete Tiernan, founder of the dearly departed analytics site “In these sorts of situations, I usually favor schools with coaches who have proven their success in the Dance. That means [Tom] Izzo time. But don’t sleep on [John] Beilein and the Wolverines. Beilein regularly performs above seed expectations. On the other hand, Jay Wright and Villanova are notorious underachievers.”

All of which raises a salient and instructive point for last-minute bracket-fillers: when in doubt, lean on a coach’s experience. Granted, that might not help with, say, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, the tournament champion in 2010 and 2015 and a first-day victim in 2012 (to Lehigh) and 2014 (to Mercer). Or Kansas’ Bill Self, a champion in 2008 and a runner-up in 2012 but a first-weekend exit each of the last two NCAA tourneys (to 10th-seeded Stanford and seventh-seeded Wichita State).

Every team can lose. All of them. To anybody. Anywhere. Anytime.

Instead of Simmons drawing cameras and onlookers, Bracketville’s stars are greybeards such as 6ft 8in KU senior forward Perry Ellis, stoic but extremely efficient on the blocks, and Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield, the closest thing the big-time men’s college game has to a Steph Curry. But neither player, to this point, has been able to lift their respective roster to the Sweet 16 more than once, which is why the conventional wisdom shifts the spotlight to Michigan State’s all-everything guard Denzel Valentine, the human triple double (19.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds per game, 7.6 assists per game) and the straw that stirs the 29-5 Spartans. That and the fact Coach Izzo hasn’t been eliminated during the tournament’s wild opening weekend since 2011. Usually, it’s about the name on the front of the jersey – but in a subset this wacky, an experienced hand at the controls just might be the single most valuable card to pull from the deck.

Although if the parallels to 1983 continue to hold their course, not even Izzo’s March pedigree is safe. That Big Dance ended with sixth-seeded North Carolina State, a 10-loss team, dunking home a stunning title over Hakeem (then “Akeem”) Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler’s ballyhooed Houston Cougars, followed by the indelible image of Jim Valvano sprinting around Albuquerque as if his pants were on fire. The head that wears a crown lies uneasy. Assuming that it’s not sitting on a pike by late Sunday night.