A lack of stars and a season of chaos could make March Madness better than ever

Given that he has already taken up residence in the NBA and brought his dunking, smiling, powerhouse ways to the professional ranks, there is no Zion Williamson, obviously, in this season of college basketball.

There is no one much like him, either, both in terms of extraordinary talent and over-the-top hype. In college hoops, with March now upon us, things have a different feel this year.

Whichever way you spin it, the quality of elite players is down. It would almost have to be. Last season, the NCAA field had not just Williamson, who had been tipped as an elite NBA star since his early years of high school, but a batch of performers seen as capable of shining at the next level, and quickly.

This year, not so much. Dayton’s Obi Toppin has had a tremendous campaign that may see him win the Naismith Award, but while Toppin will surely be a high draft pick and has a pro future ahead of him, no one is talking about him being a transformative player in the NBA.

That’s the kind of buzz Williamson brought. His games were attended by everyone from President Obama to musicians, plus leading NBA stars keen to get a glimpse of what they would soon be up against. Duke matchups became star-studded events. When his shoe split and he hurt his knee mid-season, it was the biggest story in sports — and caused Nike shares to fall 1 percent.

Yet the absence of star power doesn’t make this March any less appealing, and it could make the Madness a whole lot madder. Given the unpredictability of the regular season, where eight different teams occupied the top spot in the rankings, many of them from lesser-heralded programs, we could see even more chaos come tournament time.

“The talent in college basketball is down, without a doubt,” FOX college basketball analyst Mike DeCourcy told me. “The freshman class this year is not only not exceptional, it is below average. And that’s where most of the high-end talent usually is in the game at this point.

“But I think this college basketball season has been delightful. There is no better evidence than on Saturday. You have championship-type games in the Pac-12 with UCLA going to USC, in the Big East with Seton Hall facing Creighton. The entire Big 10 seems to be pursuing the championship of that great league. It is going to be a phenomenal day – and the tournament should be wild.”

Maybe it is better this way. Most basketball fans only really started to pay attention to Ja Morant when he led Murray State on a tournament run last year, as he was lost in the shuffle behind Williamson. As the start to his NBA career shows, Morant has the potential for greatness, too.

“Zion is one of those once-in-a-generation players that has the ability to overshadow a lot of other players in college basketball,” Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard told the Wall Street Journal. “I think that’s what happened last year.”

When you go into the tournament without one single point of focus, it offers the opportunity for new heroes to break out and emerge – and to forge reputations of their own.

You might not have heard of Oregon guard Payton Pritchard, Iowa center Luka Garza or Seton Hall guard Myles Powell. That could soon change.

Just as there are few standout players, the entire field has a sense of parity to it that has not been seen for a long time. Expect plenty of upsets in the tournament, simply because seedings may not matter that much. San Diego State, Dayton and Baylor will deserve their high seeds, but they won’t come in with an aura of impregnability.

Kansas is on track to be No. 1 overall, but has had plenty of shaky moments. Duke started the campaign by beating those Jayhawks, but has since lost six times, including a huge upset defeat to Stephen F. Austin. Kentucky has six losses also, highlighted by a home defeat to Evansville.

It means it is all wide open. In some ways, the tournament will be the survival of the fittest, a mad, collective scramble to win a tournament where no one will feel safe, yet a swell of teams will feel they have a chance.

Given how many upsets we have already seen, how many potential winners could you envisage from the ultimate field of 68? Twenty? Thirty? (FOX Bet, while we’re here, lists 19 schools with odds of +4000 or shorter to win it all, and only Kansas is shorter than 10-to-1, at +700.)

College basketball has changes afoot. Age limits and overseas opportunities mean that not all the top high school talent will ever play a college game.

Yet there is a reason why college basketball wholly consumes us at this time of year and doesn’t let go until a victor has been crowned. It is because of the thrills and shocks and drama that it never fails to provide.

It has never been about just one player, and it never will be. Quality dip or not, everything points to the next few weeks offering as much madness as ever. Maybe even more so.