March Madness ushers in new generation of the NCAA basketball superpower

MORGANTOWN, WV - MARCH 02: MaCio Teague #31 of the Baylor Bears celebrates a shot during a college basketball game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum on March 2, 2021 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
MORGANTOWN, WV - MARCH 02: MaCio Teague #31 of the Baylor Bears celebrates a shot during a college basketball game against the West Virginia Mountaineers at WVU Coliseum on March 2, 2021 in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

This year’s NCAA Tournament is very unusual as a new generation of NCAA basketball superpowers is set to take center stage this March Madness.

Many NCAA basketball fans fall into the casual category that doesn’t check out many games before March Madness. The NCAA Tournament bracket will definitely rate as a surprise to these folks who aren’t used to seeing names like Baylor, Alabama, Oklahoma and USC featured prominently among the top teams in the field.

A lot of the old guard has gone missing with teams like Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, Indiana, UCLA and North Carolina struggling to varying degrees this season. While some may be tempted to write this off as a coronavirus pandemic-related fluke, there are plenty of reasons why these new NCAA superpowers could be here to stay.

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A big key to this change in the balance of power is the fact that some of the sport’s top freshmen aren’t flocking to the blue bloods as they have in the past. Just two years ago, seven of the nation’s top ten recruits on the ESPN 100 landed at traditional powers, including the top three of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish joining forces at Duke.

The traditional powers landed only two of the top 10 ESPN 100 recruits this year, with Brandon Boston and Terrence Clarke landing at Kentucky. The G-League has proven to be an attractive option as high school stars like Jalen Green have bypassed their opportunity to learn under Coach K for a payday, but recruits are also considering non-traditional destinations, such as Cade Cunningham headed to Oklahoma State and Evan Mobley going to USC.

The fact that some of the nation’s top freshmen aren’t going to the blue bloods has definitely closed the talent gap, making things much more interesting in that sense. The model of relying on freshmen has also proven to be challenging since those teams take longer to gel, allowing teams that rely more on returning players to do well.

This has been the case for teams like Alabama, whose rotation includes four seniors and a junior, and Baylor, which returned all but two players from their 2019-20 team that was on track for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the event.

Continuity has been a big help for teams like Clemson as well, which played well for stretches of the 2019-20 campaign before fading down the stretch. That experience has paid dividends as this year’s team was able to course-correct after a rough stretch following a COVID pause, setting the stage for the Tigers’ first NCAA Tournament berth since 2018.

This strategy of team building isn’t new to college basketball, which has seen teams laden with juniors and seniors do significant damage in the NCAA Tournament for years. The advent of the one-and-done era, highlighted by Kentucky’s national title in 2012 behind Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, saw an era of McDonald’s All Americans flocking to marquee programs to create superteams, making it difficult for traditionally built programs to compete with the talent edge the Dukes and Kentuckys of the world were able to accumulate.

With that talent gap shrinking it has allowed these schools to rely on their strong head coaches to shape experienced groups into title contenders. Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton and Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger are steady hands at their schools that haven’t received national headlines while coaches from the next generation, such as Texas Tech’s Chris Beard and Alabama’s Nate Oats, have showcased that they have what it takes to build legitimate national title contenders.

Beard made a name for himself back in 2019 when he took the Red Raiders all the way to the national title game behind a smothering defense. Texas Tech has done a good job reloading and could shine in the NCAA Tournament now that they get to finally face teams away from the juggernaut that is the Big 12.

The combination of elite coaching, experience and shrinking talent gap has begun to change the traditional power structure of college basketball. Seeing how some of these non-blue bloods fare in March Madness could spotlight whether or not we are in line for a dramatic changing of the guard in the coming years.

Which non-traditional power will do the best in the NCAA Tournament?

The most likely champion from this group is Baylor, which has a relatively safe path to the Elite Eight. A matchup with Ohio State or Arkansas could prove dangerous for the Bears at that point but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Scott Drew’s team in the Final Four.

Alabama and Florida State both ended up in the East Region, which could set them up for a showdown in the Elite Eight if the Seminoles can get past Michigan. The Crimson Tide have Texas on their side of the bracket but one of these two could end up taking on Gonzaga in the Final Four as well.

Texas Tech has a difficult path forward since they have a tricky Utah State team in the first round with Arkansas looming in the Round of 32. Getting through them could lead to Ohio State and Baylor, making it unlikely that the Red Raiders make it to their second straight Final Four.

USC actually received a favorable draw by having its three seed matchup be Kansas, which is not strong on the interior, allowing Evan Mobley a chance to shine. The issue comes if the Trojans run into Iowa, which is basically a better version of USC on their best day, making their upside the Sweet 16 at best.

Clemson actually got the worst draw of these non-traditional powers even though their first-round game with Rutgers is winnable. Houston and West Virginia are on the Tigers’ side of the Midwest bracket so they appear unlikely to get to the second weekend.

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