•Lousy foul-shooting. The mighty and the meek must share the blame for the overall percentage nationwide (.663 through Jan. 31), which is on pace to be the worst since 1953-54. Free throw foul-ups, however, stand to hurt the more talented team most. Superior talent is supposed to put a defense into a position in which it must foul, but if a team can't convert the ensuing free throws, it has squandered that advantage. A case in point is Kansas, whose top-scoring inside player, Richard Scott, was shooting 47.7% from the line as of Sunday. Scott missed all live of his free throw attempts in the Jayhawks' four-point loss at home to Kansas State on Jan. 17, which bumped the Jayhawks from the top spot.
•The glut of games. Coaches still do their darnedest to get players motivated. But with game following game following game through the dog days of January and February, players are liable to go canine themselves—and then it's an underdog-eat-dog world. "Highly ranked teams think they're invincible," says George Washington coach Mike Jarvis. "There are only a couple of teams in the country that play hard all the time."
Adds Seth Greenberg, coach at Long Beach State: "You see upsets when teams start playing multiple games within a week—two league games followed by an intersectional game. The made-for-TV games create a logjam, which creates fatigue and complacency, which create the opportunity for an upset."
•Early exits. No one expects to establish a dynasty anymore, not since John Wooden unrolled his program. But it used to be that when a school recruited a high school All-America or two, it counted on getting things going for at least three, perhaps four years. Now most premier collegians check out early. Seven underclassmen were chosen in the first round of the NBA draft last spring, rather than the three or four of recent years. Kentucky, Michigan and Wake Forest would be nigh unbeatable if they still had Jamal Mashburn, Chris Webber and Rodney Rogers, respectively. Give Anfernee Hardaway, James (Hollywood) Robinson, Shawn Bradley and, yes, even the enigmatic Luther Wright back to Memphis State, Alabama, Brigham Young and Seton Hall, respectively, and those schools wouldn't be adrift right now somewhere south of the Top 25.
•Rule changes. The 35-second clock was supposed to penalize underdogs everywhere by injecting extra possessions into a game and allowing raw talent to prevail. And it has worked, at least against teams that want to slow down the game, like Princeton. In many cases, though, the shorter shot clock has resulted in more three-pointers being taken over the course of a game, which gives the shot a better chance to work its mischief. This season's other major change, the elimination of the five-second-closely-guarded rule, has proved to be a pebble for the slingshot too. If a team has one rugged, intrepid guard, he can dominate the ball. Radford went into Baton Rouge on Dec. 30 and entrusted its fortunes to a freshman playmaker named Anthony Walker. He guided the Highlanders to a 73-72 shocker over LSU. "Before that rule you were often playing three on five when you faced a team with much more talent," says Radford coach Ron Bradley. "Now if you have a guy who can handle it for 25 or 30 seconds, you can turn it into a one-on-one game on big possessions."
•Academic barriers. The ACC and the SEC, two leagues that have long had the pick of the talent from New York to New Orleans, don't accept Prop 48 academic nonqualifiers anymore. As a result, more and more terrific players are winding up at schools in the Atlantic-10 and the Great Midwest Conference. (So far this season four schools from each conference have spent at least some time in the Top 25.) New academic rules, says Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, "carved a niche for those kinds of teams. They don't have to compete [with the ACC and the SEC] for those recruits."
•Scholarship reductions. For years schools were allowed to have 15 players on scholarship, then in 1992 the number was reduced to 14, and now it's down to 13. That has opened up opportunities for rough-cut diamonds to find more-obscure settings in which to sparkle. "Out of the top 100 programs in the country there are now 200 more players available," Nevada coach Pat Foster said before this season began, explaining how he intended to rebuild in his first season in Reno. Sure enough, when the Wolf Pack beat No. 23 New Mexico State last Thursday for its first victory over a ranked team in 10 years, Nevada's star, with 25 points and 14 rebounds, turned out to be juco transfer Jimmy Moore—a guy who might well have gone to UNLV this season if the Rebels had had another scholarship to give.
You can see this trickle-down effect everywhere. Take Maryland's Joe Smith. As a high-schooler in Norfolk, Va., he desperately wanted to go to North Carolina. And he might be wearing Carolina blue today if the Tar Heels had a 14th and 15th scholarship. But instead of being practice fodder for Eric Montross, Kevin Salvadori and Rasheed Wallace, Smith is at a school that had a spot for him—and lots of playing time, too—and he's making a name as the best freshman in the nation.
Some coaches believe the lost scholarships and tighter academic requirements have hurt the quality of the college game. "I don't think any league has ever been better than ours was in 1986," says Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. "The sixth-best team in the ACC that year was Maryland, with Len Bias." However, that quality may still be there, only more equitably spread out. Perhaps it's because the best athletes aren't concentrated on the same teams and because a coach doesn't have the same influence over what those players do that the game has become so enormously crowd-pleasing.
And the real madness doesn't start for another month. In 1982-83, the last time the AP poll was so discombobulated during a regular season, seven teams did a stint as No. 1. The postseason delivered an unforgettable tournament. That year the NCAA crowned arguably its unlikeliest champion ever, North Carolina State. All of which suggests that this March might be clinically insane.