Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Truly Wide-Open Season

By Ross Lancaster

There's a paradox that I can't stop thinking about whenever I'm watching college basketball this season.

The games themselves, from an aesthetic point of view, are more watchable than they have been in several years. Due to rule changes made in the offseason, the college game looks more like what a basketball game should. Yes, there are games that suffer in flow due to a lot of fouls being called, but that comes from a well-intentioned (and mostly successful) desire to free up player movement.

Last year, the game of college basketball was essentially the opposite. Many of the biggest games resembled rugby on hardwood and were contests to see who could get to 60 or 65 points first. Now, offensive efficiency and pace are up, and defensive rockfights are a quirky exception rather than a common occurrence.

And yet, I don't quite feel myself as compelled by this season so far as I did the last. But that's because last year, we arguably had four great teams: Kentucky, Duke, Wisconsin, and Arizona. Three made the Final Four. One started 38-0, one defeated the 38-0 team, one won the title, and the other was a whisker away from making the Final Four.

This year, there's no great team, just an abundance of solid basketball games and teams. And while the storylines might not be there, it could all lead up to an end of the season and NCAA Tournament like we've never seen before.

It's boring, overdone, and explicitly wrong to repeat the line about "there's so much parity in college basketball" that we hear every single year. The 200th best team in the country is simply not going to beat the 50th best team four or five times out of 10. It's not going to happen.

However, if you limited that statement down to "there's so much parity in college basketball among the top eight conferences and the very best mid-majors," I'd absolutely believe it in this season.

If were to ask most any college hoops fan to pick a national title favorite after this weekend, I feel like a question mark thought bubble would immediately appear over their head. Personally, I would make North Carolina the slightest of favorites, chiefly because of the senior leadership of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige.

Yet, that leadership experience doesn't include any games past the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels can't shoot threes and just lost both of their games last week.

Kansas might be the team with the least number of weaknesses, but all of its best wins away from Lawrence are against projected bubble teams. Villanova looks the part yet again in the new Big East, but I don't think anyone really trusts them to win in March after dominant seasons turned into first weekend flame-outs the past two years with several of the same players on the roster today.

Buddy Hield's Oklahoma has been a great story, and played in a few of the season's most classic games. However, the Sooners' defense and rebounding leaves me unconvinced.

Go look at the KenPom ratings. You can make a solid championship case for a majority of the top 25, and perhaps for some outside of that range. And that number excludes SMU and Louisville, who aren't eligible for the postseason. You could talk me into a lot of the top 50 making the Final Four.

One common refrain among very casual college hoops fans is that "it doesn't matter until the tournament." That's of course bunk. Every year, upwards of 330 schools are eligible for the national championship, and only 68 qualify for the championship tournament.

But in this season, will we really know that much until then? Sure, there will be some gap in quality between say, the top seeds and the 5 or 6 seeds, but none of the top teams will likely be anything close to looking invincible. Heck, the gap between the 5 and 6 seeds and those on the wrong side of the bubble may be negligible.

Two years ago, Wichita State and Florida dominated the balance of the season, going a combined 66-2 before the NCAA tournament. They lost to an 8 seed and a 7 seed, respectively, each of whom played for the national championship.

In this season, no team had fewer than two losses overall after Feb. 1. It's exceedingly unlikely that any team in one of the top eight conferences will have less than two losses in conference.

The great teams that casual fans will remember for generations can't be found this season, and that's okay. But thanks to a wide-open upper echelon of teams, and a more watchable brand of basketball across the country, the final weeks of the regular season, plus conference and NCAA tournaments, should be as fun as they have been in a while.

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