We’re 10 weeks from Selection Sunday. This isn’t a hot-button local issue just yet, what with Josh Donaldson/Jake Fromm still deciding, but the road to the Final Four does – not to sound like Greg Gumbel – end here. And here’s what we know for sure about college basketball:
We’ve just hit January. Already the Associated Press poll has featured six No. 1s. Michigan State began there. The Spartans lost their first game to Kentucky, which succeeded them as No. 1. The Wildcats then lost at home to Evansville, clearing the way for Duke to make its annual chart-topping appearance. That lasted until the Blue Devils were beaten at Cameron Indoor Stadium by Stephen F. Austin. Are we sensing a trend?
Louisville was next. The Cardinals were undone by unranked Texas Tech, which nearly won the 2019 NCAA title but, with Jarrett Culver in the NBA, had contrived to lose three in a row to Iowa, Creighton and DePaul. Kansas supplanted Louisville at No. 1. That lasted a week. Villanova unseated the Jayhawks. The sixth team to reach the top of this slippery slope was Gonzaga, which had lost by 18 points to Michigan on a neutral floor the day after Thanksgiving. But who else was there? And did it even matter?
As of New Year’s Day, there were two – of 353 – Division I teams still unbeaten. One was Auburn, the other San Diego State. The Aztecs were No. 13 in the AP poll, though the NCAA’s newish NET rankings had them No. 1. (Owing to their 224th-ranked strength of schedule, Ken Pomeroy had them No. 19.) Auburn’s best victory was against N.C. State, which opened with a thudding home loss to Georgia Tech.
We’ve begun to see Final Fours populated by fewer Brand Names – the 2017 edition had South Carolina and Oregon; 2018 included Loyola-Chicago; last year’s featured Texas Tech and Auburn – but we need to prepare ourselves for an NCAA tournament like no other. If Duke and Kentucky can lose as, respectively, 27.5- and 25-point favorites on their famous home courts, who’s to say what might happen over a three-week event where nobody plays at home?
Last season had one theme. His name was (still is, actually) Zion Williamson. The Duke freshman propped up an entire sport. When he dunked, which was often, ESPN reran it 50 times. When he blew out a sneaker, the world took heed. When his team was undone by Michigan State in the Elite Eight, it left us with a Zion-free Final Four – which isn’t to say what followed wasn’t enthralling. The Virginia-Auburn semi and the Virginia-Texas Tech final were classics.
Even more than college football, college hoops centers on blueblood programs and their coaches. The best players play as collegians for 4-1/2 months before choosing what to wear as they shake Adam Silver’s hand. And yet: Neither Duke nor Kentucky, principal purveyors of one-and-dones, has reached a Final Four since 2015. Villanova, which prides itself on not signing one-and-dones, won it all in 2016 and 2018.
A year after becoming the first No. 1 seed to fall to a No. 16, Virginia won the national title. En route to their championship, the Cavaliers trailed inside the final seconds of regulation in the Elite Eight against Purdue, the semi against Auburn and the final against Texas Tech. That’s how fine these margins have become.
Even having the best coach since Wooden hasn’t inoculated Duke against the madness, as it were. Here’s a partial list of Duke one-and-dones who haven’t made a Final Four under Mike Krzyzewski: Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers, Jabari Parker, Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion. All were lottery picks.
Yes, Kentucky won the 2012 with three one-and-dones, and yes, Duke did the same in 2015. Those stand as aberrations. You still need big-timers to win big – Culver of Texas Tech and De’Andre Hunter of Virginia were lottery picks – but Culver was a 3-star who, per 247Sports, ranked 312th in the recruiting class of 2017. Hunter was a 4-star who redshirted as a college freshman. The Hawks drafted him No. 5 overall.
Two months ago, the three best freshmen figured to be Anthony Edwards of Georgia, James Wiseman of Memphis and Cole Anthony of North Carolina. Wiseman was declared ineligible by the NCAA and has since left the Memphis program to prepare for the NBA. He logged three collegiate games. Anthony had knee surgery in December and is expected to miss another month; his injury is among the reasons the Tar Heels might miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.
As for Ant Man: He has been almost as good as advertised – through 13 games, he’s averaging 18.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists – and his Bulldogs took a major step toward the NCAA tournament by upsetting Memphis, No. 9 in the AP poll, on the road Saturday. Until then, Georgia hadn’t beaten anyone of consequence, which was why it wasn’t mentioned in Joe Lunardi’s latest installment of ESPN Bracketology. That’s now subject to change. Edwards and Co. will face Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday, giving them a chance to stack signature wins back-to-back.
The tournament that will end under the retractable roof of Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be stirring – the Big Dance is never less – but we can’t yet know in what way. KenPom ranks Duke No. 1; it’s possible Vernon Carey and his fellow frosh will take the Devils where Zion couldn’t. It’s also possible Obi (short for Obadiah) Toppin, who didn’t play the sport until he was a high school senior and didn’t merit a star rating from 247, will carry the Dayton Flyers to the A-T-L. A sophomore, Toppin might be the nation’s best player.
There was a time where we were attracted to college basketball because of continuity. How good would Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) be as a senior? Could the Indiana that lost one heartbreaking game in 1975 go unbeaten the next season? (It could and did.) Now the sport is forever starting anew; if we care enough to keep watching, we learn to adjust. This season won’t be like last season. This NCAA tournament won’t have antecedents.
There’s no Tom Brady here, no LeBron. This isn’t football, where the same half-dozen teams vie for four playoff spots. This is college hoops, where anything goes. Coach K might well reach his 13th Final Four. Obi Toppin might also reach his first.
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