College Basketball Enters the Anarchy Era

The 2007 NCAA tournament stands out as a turning point in college basketball history. It was the first March Madness to be played under the one-and-done rule, creating a new paradigm in roster construction for the biggest programs. Florida's returning champions beat one-and-done-powered Ohio State in the championship game. No team since has successfully defended a Division I basketball title.

But a lesser-appreciated historical marker occurred on Selection Sunday that year when Syracuse and Kansas State were each left out of the then-65-team field despite winning 10 conference games and more than 20 overall in a power conference.

Before then, having that kind of conference and overall record and not qualifying for the big dance from a major conference was unthinkable. Back in the era when teams could play all or most of their conference opponents twice, it simply felt impossible that a team could rack up that many wins in a top conference and not have enough good wins to qualify for the tournament.

After that year, it became apparent that with growing conferences, your strength of schedule in the league could be as much of a killer to tourney hopes as scheduling soft in non-league games. In 2018, Nebraska failed to earn selection to the field, despite a whopping 13-5 record in the Big Ten.

With the demise of the Pac-12, four of the five major basketball conferences will have 16 teams or more next season. In other words, the sport is about to take unbalanced scheduling to the next frontier, with only the stalwart, 11-team Big East featuring a traditional double round-robin league format.

On future Selection Sundays, records, quadrant wins, and strengths of schedule could have an altogether randomized appearance.

But even before the power-conference shakeup of next summer — I'm seeing a level of craziness at the top of the sport that feels unlike anything to date.

For starters, there are no undefeated teams left in the country. Just four one-loss teams remain, three of which are in non-power conferences (Utah State, Princeton, and Grand Canyon). Ole Miss has the best record of any major-conference team, and team metrics like KenPom and Bart Torvik don't think the Rebels will finish with a winning SEC conference mark.

Every major sportsbook currently regards Purdue as the national championship favorite. Despite the Boilermakers' historical struggles in the NCAA tournament and losing to a 16-seed last season, I can't disagree with the books here. Zach Edey is a dominant force and appears poised to become the first repeat men's Wooden Award winner in more than 40 years. Purdue's backcourt and wings are less of a question mark than they were this time last year. The Boilermakers' quality wins make them about as close as you can get to a No. 1 seed lock in January.

Still, Purdue has lost to two teams — Northwestern and Nebraska — that may not even make the field of 68. And their defense, even with Edey's rim protection, is in the bottom half of the Big Ten during conference play, per KenPom.

Arizona and Houston are right behind Purdue in the championship odds futures. Arizona already has multiple conference losses in a down Pac-12, and Houston is on a January losing streak for the first time in seven years.

Of course, several more teams at or near the top of the rankings lost this past week. After Maryland upset Illinois in Champaign on Sunday, the top 10 in the AP Poll went just 10-9 for the Monday to Sunday poll week. Ultimately, only UConn and North Carolina had undefeated weeks as top-10 teams.

I don't see weeks like this one happening repeatedly through the first week of March, but last year's NCAA tournament and this year's regular season have made it clear that anything can happen in this sport now. Some will claim it's not anarchy, but even as some blue-blood programs continue to do well, it seems obvious that the traditional dominance we've seen from year to year in college hoops is being chipped away by the transfer portal and NIL.

With the super-conference era on tap next season, this trend may go to another level. I covered it some during football season, but there are going to be some nutty conference matchups coming soon. And unlike football — a once-a-week sport — the midweek and weekend flow of a conference hoops season will have teams traveling thousands of miles for road games. Kansas losing to UCF last Wednesday night was a stunner, but it's a type of road loss I expect to see more often during a college basketball season as conferences grow.

Even outside the conferences where five- and six-hour flights are about to become normal, we're seeing anarchy take hold. Florida Atlantic has some excellent wins over big-boy opposition — including winning the game of the season against Arizona in Las Vegas — and yet lost twice as 15+ point favorites against Bryant and Florida Gulf Coast. I know FAU has national championship potential as a Final Four team that returned its coach and nearly every major contributor on the court, and yet I can't say with any level of certainty that they'll be in the field of 68 on March 17. It's unpredictable in the extreme.

If you're the type of fan who only tunes in to college hoops sparingly to see who the best teams are heading into March, you might not get a lot of answers this winter. This season is taking unpredictability to unforeseen heights.

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