Commentary

It's wide open, so embrace the chaos

An unpredictable feel as college basketball gets underway with Midnight Madness

Originally Published: October 12, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

This time last year we knew.

We said all the right things -- that everyone had a chance, that nothing was guaranteed, clean slate, yada yada yada.

Except if pressed, we also would have admitted that we were merely regurgitating the platitudes and "Bull Durham"-isms you're supposed to spew on the first day of practice, but we didn't really believe them.

Because in mid-October, we knew that Kentucky was the best team in college basketball and we knew that, barring a catastrophic meltdown or cataclysmic injuries, they'd be hoisting the trophy in April. The Wildcats were that good.

We also knew that, sans other catastrophic or cataclysmic misfortunes, there were only a handful of teams that could really challenge Kentucky. Of course one went catastrophic (North Carolina lost Kendall Marshall) and another cataclysmic (Syracuse lost Fab Melo), thereby removing themselves from contention).

[+] EnlargeFinal Four
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWho will make it to Atlanta? The road to the Final Four is sure to be crowded.

Today, as a new season dawns with the musical squeak of sneakers in college gyms everywhere, we are considerably less certain. We are, in fact, pretty close to wide-open.

Yes, there is a crop of teams that belongs at the top -- regional neighbors Indiana, Louisville and Kentucky among them -- but can we say unequivocally that one of them will be enjoying a confetti bath in Atlanta?

No, we can't. All of them are good, very good, but all have questions much bigger and harder to answer than the Wildcats did a year ago.

Is Indiana, after finally regaining its footing post-Kelvin Sampson debacle, ready to handle the glare of the spotlight? Can Louisville shoot well enough -- especially without Mike Marra yet again -- to revisit the Final Four? Are these Kentucky freshmen as good as those Kentucky freshman? Is Deshaun Thomas' scoring enough to overcome the loss of Jared Sullinger at Ohio State? Does Michigan have the shooters to make John Beilein's system work?

Frankly, I like it this way.

That some of the game's biggest and most traditional programs seemed predestined for the Final Four in New Orleans was fun. And I can appreciate the coronation of a deserved champion as much as anyone.

Still -- and despite a lifelong allegiance to a certain Bronx-bombing baseball team -- I prefer my sports unpredictable, even a little chaotic. (That also helps keep the Giants fan in me both sane and ever-hopeful during the NFL season.)

Sports sometime seem to be the last bastion of surprise in our world. We have definitively and permanently shepherded patience and waiting out of our society. I often wonder how we found anyone before cellphones, and just recently my 8-year-old son was stunned to learn that I actually had to go to the library to get information while in college. There was no Google app on my phone. In fact, there was no Google and there was no phone.

And with the absence of tedious patience and annoying waiting, so goes the heart-thumping element of the unexpected.

Want to know what sex your baby is? Wait 20 weeks and we'll tell you. Who's calling on the phone? Eh, caller ID says we can ignore it. Wondering when the surprise party celebrant might walk in the door? No doubt someone can text you step-by-step location to the front door, or better yet, you can download a handy GPS app to track him.

Sports still have the potential to shock us -- in a good, non-reality show way. The Nationals, by God, can have the best record in baseball. Jeremy Lin can own New York temporarily. Michael Phelps can lose.

College basketball, of course, has built its reputation on such unexpected thrills. The end-of-the-season madness is a three-week love letter to bedlam. Bryce Drew, Mario Chalmers and, of course, the late Lorenzo Charles will live forever because of it.

But I'm all for paying homage to our new lust for the immediate. Why wait until March for chaos? Let's have it all season.

Let's go into this season with wild and wacky Final Four picks -- I've already seen UNLV, Gonzaga and even Butler mentioned -- and enjoy them for their disparity.

Let's embrace a non-consensus No. 1 and trash the term "prohibitive favorite."

Let's actually see how the season plays out, who emerges and gets better, who buckles and falls apart.

Let's say as of today, the unofficial start of the season, that everyone has the same chance, that nothing is guaranteed and that the slate is clean.

And let's actually mean it.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball