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The NCAA Tournament field isn't wide open

This was supposed to be the year of the field.

This was supposed to be the Maddest March ever, an NCAA Tournament featuring more “potential deep run teams” than ever, as Mike Krzyzewski told USA Today sports last week.

This was supposed to be the culmination of what was started in 2010, when Butler and VCU crashed the Final Four with a pair of unforgettable March runs. So after the bracket was announced Sunday night, it wasn’t supposed to feel like déjà vu all over again.

Despite the supposed wide-open field, just about everybody has Louisville cutting down the nets in Atlanta (except Vegas, which has them as just an 8-to-1 favorite). And if you manage to find someone not on the Cardinals’ bandwagon, chances are that person hasn’t reached too far down the bracket to find their winner. Of a list of 34 expert picks compiled by Ken Pomeroy, 27 took the ‘Ville, and the remaining seven were split between various other No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.

The biggest omission from that list? Duke. It’s amazing the difference a week can make.

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I wish I knew what sent the Blue Devils tumbling from a potential No. 1 overall seed into a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s toughest region, but ESPN Caribbean was more interested in showing a BNP Paribas Open showdown between Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray than the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. While I was busy on spring break doing a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, Duke was suffering through the most poorly timed off-shooting night of the college basketball season, a 4-of-25 performance from beyond the arc that apparently cost it all chances of being competitive this March.

Meanwhile, Louisville rode a three-game winning streak in the Big East Tournament—only one of which came against a top-25 KenPom team—to jump in the seeding process about as far as Duke fell during the span of a week.

The truth about each team, like always, probably lies somewhere in the middle. The Cardinals flew under the radar after three consecutive January losses, but they haven’t lost since a five-overtime defeat at Notre Dame Feb. 9. And those quick to anoint Duke as the nation’s top squad with Ryan Kelly back in the lineup were looking too closely at the team’s performance four months ago, just as those currently condemning the Blue Devils for one poor shooting night could stand to calm down a little.

The end-of-the-regular-season reshuffling atop the rankings reflects some of the parity that Krzyzewski and a number of other coaches have pointed out over the last few weeks. But the level playing field still doesn’t extend 30 or 40 teams deep, as Krzyzewski portends. Although there isn’t a transcendent team in college basketball this season, a la Kentucky in 2011-12, the group of 10-12 very good teams is as separated from the rest of the pack as ever—and one of those programs will win in Atlanta.

March often tricks us into thinking talent is spread more evenly across the tournament field than it really is. Upsets are plentiful—and always will be—on opening weekend, but as the tournament continues, the expected programs rise to the top (with the notable exceptions in recent years of Butler and VCU). No team seeded outside the top four in its region has won the tournament since 1988, and five out of the last six have been top seeds.

So don’t be fooled: Parity in the context of the 2012-13 college basketball season just means that we can’t be sure which No. 1 or No. 2 seed will win the tournament—not that all 68 teams have a shot.

As always, a few of the top seeds will be knocked out early—lookin’ at you, Kansas, Ohio State and Marquette—but be careful trying to ride Pittsburgh, Belmont, or Bucknell deep into the second weekend, let alone into the third.

Admittedly, it’s easy to point to Butler and VCU as exceptions to this rule, and the latter is especially likely to crash the party again this year. There is little evidence, though, that other mid-major programs are lining up to break through in similar fashion.

Now that I’ve written all this, get ready for a Final Four solely comprising double-digit seeds.

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