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With an increase in early draft entries bracket-breaking abounds

Was I the only one who heard that loud sound of NCAA Tournament brackets tearing up into shreds Sunday night?

With St. John's loss to Gonzaga and Wisconsin's win over No. 1 seed Arizona Saturday, many people's brackets were starting to crumble. But the big blow came on Sunday, when Stanford fell to North Carolina, Seton Hall knocked off Temple in overtime and Cincinnati lost to Tulsa. As the Round of 32 came to a close, most people realized their brackets and specifically their final four matchups were now in hopeless disarray.

There are a lot of reasons why this many upsets have occurred thus far and most of the blame seems to rest on the shoulders of the NCAA Selection Committee, who, in a lot of cases, may have overestimated the talent of some of its top seeds. Three of four No. 2 seeds - St. John's, Temple and Cincinnati - all fell in the Round of 32. St. John's and Temple may not have deserved to be placed that high based on their overall records. The Red Storm was not ranked in the Top 25 for much of the season. Without Kenyon Martin, Cincinnati was not that strong of a team.

Top-seeded Stanford and Arizona were also possibly overranked, given Stanford's late-season slump and Arizona's loss of star center Loren Woods to injury.

And while it's easy to fault the Selection Committee for ignoring all of these now-apparent signs of problems at the top, a larger problem could be that no one really knows which teams are the best in the country.

In the past few years, there have been clear favorites in the NCAA Tournament. There have been teams that were unbeatable and breezed through the tournament until they reached the Elite Eight. But this year, the tournament has more parity, which makes just about every matchup grounds for an upset. As the Round of 32 proved, there might not be that much difference between a No. 1 and a No. 8 seed this year.

While some people might look at the parity as being a good thing, indicating a good crop of high-quality teams, a more likely explanation is the overall mediocrity in this year's tournament, which results from the recent tendency of college players to enter the NBA draft early.

With high salaries accompanying early picks, there is very little these days that will keep a sophomore or junior who will be a first-round pick in school.

And so when college players have a breakout sophomore or junior season and are reasonably assured of a high draft pick, most will choose to forgo their last year or two and instead opt to make money for playing basketball.

And whether you agree or disagree with players entering the draft early, the truth still remains that it greatly affects the teams they left behind.

After Duke lost Elton Brand, William Avery and Corey Maggette, they may have reloaded with talented recruits, but without the three stars who left the program early, Duke has become beatable like every other team. When North Carolina lost Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter two years ago, it still had a competitive squad, but not a team that was as strong or talented as it had with the two stars. Even Connecticut, who only lost All-American guard Richard Hamilton last year to early entry, suffered without its star player.

The equality in the NCAA Tournament makes the games more interesting to watch. With some luck, the 40-point margins of victory will start to dwindle, but on the other side of the coin, the parity also means the teams can't keep their superstars for very long.

Even if a school lands a top-notch recruit, the possibility exists that the recruit will stay in school two or three seasons and then pack up for the pros. Not keeping players for their full four years, therefore, results in teams that will have good seasons, but the dynasties that existed in previous years will become more rare now that so many players leave early for the NBA.

I like the fact that any team can beat any other team. It sure makes the tournament a lot more interesting and a lot less predictable. But given the shredding of NCAA brackets this year, if more parity and uncertainty is what we have to look forward to, it might be time to give up on those tournament bracket pools and just enjoy the games.


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