Season of mediocrity, UNC on rise, Kemba in slump, more thoughts
Fourteen of Top 25 lost last week; Top 25 teams had a record of 22-20
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina starting to find stride in down ACC
Duke's Kyle Singler, K-State's Curtis Kelly having disappointing seasons
Here's a fun little parlor game: If the 2010-11 college basketball season were a movie, what would you call it? Open Season? Upset in the Air? Lack of True Grit? The Kids Are Not All Right? The Mid-major Strikes Back? The Hurt Locker Room? How about ... Gone With the Wins?
Or maybe we should just cut to the chase and call this picture what it is: When Parity Met Mediocrity.
If ever there was a season when we should be grateful that college hoops crowns its champion in a most un-football-like fashion, this is it. You can't even say that up is down and down is up anymore. There are no directions. Last weekend's action summed up the state of the game in a neat, 48-hour window. Thirteen of the Top 25 teams lost. Half of the top 10 went down. And that doesn't include top-ranked Ohio State, which nearly lost at Northwestern even though the Wildcats were missing their best player, John Shurna, who was out with a concussion.
Last week, the Top 25 had a record of 22-20. That's right, the very best teams in the country were two games over .500. It's the very definition of mass mediocrity.
Do we blame the voters (whoever they are; cough cough) for being so wrong? Or do we blame the teams? A quick glance at The Associated Press preseason rankings reads like a victim's unit: Michigan State (2), Kansas State (3), Gonzaga (11), Illinois (13), Butler (16), Baylor (17), Memphis (19), Temple (21), Virginia Tech (22), Tennessee (24). Do you know what all of these teams have in common? None of them are ranked in this week's poll. Maybe we should make a movie about the AP voters and call it The Blind Side.
All of which begs two questions: Why is this happening? And is it good for the sport?
The first answer is pretty simple. What we're seeing is the confluence of trends that have been burgeoning for more than decade. The most obvious is the stream of underclassman defections to the NBA. That began with that watershed moment in 1995 when Kevin Garnett went from high school senior to the fifth pick in the draft.
The second trend is the proliferation of national television coverage. I mean, even the Mountain West Conference has its own network now. Players have always had opportunities at lots of schools. Now they know that wherever they go, they're going to be on national TV. That doesn't just have an effect on recruiting, either. If a guy doesn't start as a college freshman, he can simply transfer to his second choice. Happens all the time.
Finally, the development of international basketball has provided lesser-known schools with a whole new talent pool to exploit. Saint Mary's has built itself into a mid-major powerhouse by setting up a pipeline to Australia alone.
When experience is in such short supply, it becomes that much more valuable. Northern Iowa didn't beat Kansas in last year's NCAA tournament because its players were better. UNI won because its players were older. Ditto for West Virginia and Kentucky. The top of college basketball is not nearly as high as it used to be, and the bottom is not nearly as low. It's only natural that everyone would meet in the middle.
This season, we're also witnessing an unusual circumstance in which three power conferences are in the throes of major down cycles. The Pac-10 sent two teams to the NCAA tournament last year, and the league is only marginally better now. The SEC West is so bad that not a single team is currently ranked in the top 80 of the RPI. And as I've said before, in two-plus decades of covering this sport I have never seen the ACC this lousy. North Carolina re-appeared in this week's poll, but Florida State dropped out -- so the conference still hasn't had more than two teams ranked since the preseason poll. Most of the time Duke has been the only ranked team from the ACC. (Then again, maybe we should stop looking at the polls to figure out who's good.)
As a result, the transitive property no longer applies. Texas can lose at USC and then win at Kansas. Tennessee, which should be this movie's poster child, can win at Villanova and Pitt (at the Consol Energy Center) and lose to College of Charleston and Charlotte. Louisville loses at home to Drexel but beats UConn on the road. Providence loses to LaSalle but beats Louisville and Villanova. Auburn loses to Samford, Campbell and Presbyterian, but it beats Florida State, which later beats Duke. What, you didn't know Presbyterian was better than Duke? And on Sunday, St. John's (which lost to Fordham) blew out Duke.
As for whether all of this is good for the sport, the answer is in the eye of the answerer. On the one hand, I think it's great when there are so many surprises. It makes every fan feel like his or her team has a chance. I'm only glad that the NCAA didn't expand the tournament to 96 teams. There's only so much mediocrity we can watch.
On the other hand, fans like to see dynastic greatness. They're not getting it this season. Duke had a chance to be great if Kyrie Irving didn't get hurt. As good as Ohio State has been, it has squeaked by mediocre teams like Michigan, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. If you think the Buckeyes are going undefeated, you haven't been following the plot.
Indeed, the only thing certain about this college basketball season is its uncertainty. If you're looking for a neat and tidy order of things, you're watching the wrong movie. Otherwise, grab some popcorn and a box of Sno Caps, because there's a very interesting flick playing in this theater, and I know just what to call it.
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