This is the future.
No great teams. No great players. Parity across the board.
This is what college basketball will look like once the one-and-done rule is over, when the nation’s best players don’t have to attend college or go overseas for a year, when they can go straight to the NBA.
There has been concern about what it may do to the sport, losing the high-end prospect. The change is expected in 2022. But this year is an indication it may not be so bad. Everyone loves watching the elite players, but college basketball is about the unpredictable happening, about everybody believing they have a real shot.
This season, more than most years — more than any year I can remember — that’s not just a talking point by purists trying to prop up the sport. It’s reality. Anything seems possible.
We’ve already had six different No. 1-ranked teams. The current one, Gonzaga, is merely there because of attrition and the fact it plays in a mid-major conference incapable of matching its level. The ACC, a perennial power conference usually loaded with Final Four contenders, is mediocre. North Carolina is in danger of finishing below .500 for the first time in 18 years.
You could name about 15 teams capable of winning it all. You can list about 10 players who can claim National Player of the Year honors. There isn’t a single team in the country — not Duke, not Kansas, not Kentucky — that I would be surprised to see fail to make it out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.
Some have dubbed this a sign of mediocrity. It’s a fair take. There is less talent. Projected No. 1 pick James Wiseman opting to withdraw from Memphis after he was suspended 12 games by the NCAA for accepting impermissible benefits wasn’t good for the sport. Neither was Cole Anthony’s knee surgery or losing out on top prospects such as LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton. This is the future, when experience will be the most important asset, when seniors will rule, when blue bloods such as Kansas, Duke and Kentucky won’t just be able to rely on the top prospects, but have to focus on building teams, not getting by on talent alone.
I see it as intriguing. I see it as a welcome change from the college football landscape, where a select few are capable of winning it all every year and everyone else has to settle for meaningless bowl games that really are exhibitions.
It is the major storyline of the season, like a skyscraper next to a few small office buildings. The sport is wide open, for major awards and team accomplishments. This is the reason we love college basketball, because anything seems possible in March, because the tournament gives the little guy a puncher’s chance.
This March, you can see a Dayton or a Seton Hall getting to the Final Four in Atlanta. You can see a Baylor or a San Diego State winning it all. You can see the Final Four without a single blue blood.
This March, it seems, will truly be Madness.
A lot has been made of St. John’s declining to acknowledge Seton Hall star Myles Powell reaching 2,000 points for his career early in the second half of the Pirates’ 82-79 victory Saturday at the Garden. I had no problem with the route the Red Storm took, after Seton Hall asked them pregame if they would. This was their home game, their arena, against a rival. Instead, Powell will be honored at Prudential Center before Wednesday’s home game against Providence. Had Powell set the school’s all-time scoring record or reached a major Big East mark, I would feel differently. I’ve seen home teams handle such situations in different ways. But St. John’s didn’t owe Powell or Seton Hall anything.
Coach K, Boomer
Mike Krzyzewski didn’t like the officiating in Duke’s loss to Louisville, in a game his team attempted 12 more free throws and was called for eight fewer fouls.
“It was like an early [1990’s] Pistons-Bulls game. It was unbelievable,” he told reporters. “I’m not a sour-grapes guy. Give them credit. I’m just saying, the game shouldn’t be that way. There should be freedom of movement. They did what they did better than we did.”
It sure sounded like sour grapes from a coach whose teams have received the benefit of the doubt from referees for years.
Game of the Week
No. 5 Butler at No. 14 Villanova, Tuesday 7:00 p.m.
This is more than the latest chapter in one of the Big East’s best rivalries. It is more than a résumé-building victory. It is more than a showdown between two of the league’s best guards, Kamar Baldwin and Collin Gillespie. The loser would put itself in a precarious position to win the league’s regular-season crown. A loss and Butler would be three games behind undefeated Seton Hall, having already lost to the Pirates at home. Villanova loses and it would be two games back.
1. Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga, Duke
2. Florida State, Oregon, San Diego State, West Virginia
3. Seton Hall, Butler, Michigan State, Auburn
4. Villanova, Dayton, Wichita State, Maryland
Up: New Jersey
For the first time since 1991, it looks like Seton Hall and Rutgers will both reach the NCAA Tournament in the same year. The 18th-ranked Pirates, all alone atop the Big East, are a Final Four contender. The Scarlet Knights, undefeated at home and tied for second place in the rugged Big Ten, are headed for their first winning season in 14 years and possibly a national ranking. Who knows, maybe the in-state rivals will meet in the tournament?
Up: Kofi Cockburn
You can point to several factors in Illinois’ renaissance. The coaching of Brad Underwood. The play of leading scorer Ayo Dosunmu. But at the top of the list is the 7-footer from Queens, who is nearly averaging a double-double, adjusting far quicker to the college game than most expected. With seven double-doubles, the six-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week has provided a rim-protector on defense and difference-making post presence on offense, leading the Illini to a tie for second place in the Big Ten, and a shot at their first NCAA Tournament since 2013.
You have to go back to pre-realignment for the last time the ACC was this pedestrian. Since expanding to 15 teams in 2013-14, it has sent at least six teams to the tournament each year. But the argument can be made it is the worst of the five conferences this season. It has just three tournament locks in No. 3 Duke, No. 9 Florida State and No. 11 Louisville. Defending national champion Virginia is a bubble team. North Carolina, submarined by the knee injury to dynamic freshman Cole Anthony, is below .500 and tied with Wake Forest in the conference basement. The ACC only has three teams — the big three listed above — in the top 40 of the NET and KenPom rankings.
Most projections had the Musketeers as a top-three Big East team. Naji Marshall was seen as a player of the year candidate in the league. An NCAA Tournament was supposed to be a given. Instead, Xavier entered a critical part of its season toiling near the bottom of the conference at 1-4, trending towards the bubble. Wednesday’s home meeting with Georgetown is as close to a must-win as there is in January, especially since the Musketeers will play seven of their last 12 league games on the road. Aside from Providence, there hasn’t been a bigger disappointment in the Big East than Xavier, which was supposed to be ready for a big year, not have to fight to stay out of the league cellar late in January.