Madness. A term typically reserved for March in the college basketball world. Up until that point the blue bloods tend to dominate the regular season, losing a road conference game here and there but typically nothing too “mad.” From quite literally day one of the 2019-20 season, everything you believed you knew about college basketball was flipped upside down. Michigan State was the consensus preseason No. 1, garnering 60/65 first place votes from the Associated Press. They lost somewhat convincingly opening night to a No. 2 Kentucky team, which was surprising to many, however a Kentucky victory against anybody will never be too far out of the ordinary. That “upset” on its own wasn’t and isn’t the story. It was the first domino to fall in what has already been a season of pure chaos and yes, madness.
We have all seen the ESPN graphics played over and over during their broadcasts of No. 1 ranked teams that have fallen this year. Akin to the heralded “Madden Curse” that haunts the cover athletes the following year after they grace the cover of the overrated video game, there seems to be a No. 1 curse this year. Each team that has earned the ranking of the top team in the country has been extremely fortunate to hold it for more than a week this season. After that Champions Classic defeat of the Spartans, No. 1 Kentucky fell at home to Evansville. That handed the top ranking to Duke who lost their first non-conference home game since 2000. As 27.5 points favorites. To Stephen F. Austin. We’re not even out of November yet. This trend continued as traditional powerhouses everywhere kept losing to schools for the first time either ever, or in a very very long time. All of this goes without even mentioning North Carolina, who have sputtered to an 8-9 record and frankly would do well to make the NIT.
So what does this come down to? Are the good teams this year just worse, or have smaller schools just gotten better. I believe to an extent, both are true. The typical suspects in Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas, Gonzaga and others all find themselves in the top 15, but if someone told me none of them would be in the Final Four, I wouldn’t be more than mildly surprised. The good teams have not done enough to merit unbridled confidence in any of them even being a guaranteed second weekend team. No team has the total experience and talent package you see in at least a few teams a year.
Surprisingly, there also is not a team with a starting lineup of just five star freshman who seemingly have enough talent to make experience irrelevant. There usually is at least one a year that have everyone convinced they’re going to win until the age old truth rears its head: you can’t win with freshmen (Sorry Zion). The best freshman in the country (at least for a year) have derived away from the AAU “play with all your talented friends” format, and rather go to the best situation for them. No more than two of the top 20 recruits went to the same school, leading to more of an even playing field, at least in terms of talent. In years past an Anthony Edwards or Isaiah Stewart would have been fighting for shots behind three or four other five stars at Kentucky, instead they chose to be “the man” at Georgia and Washington. I personally respect that a lot more than creating college “superteams.” I’m not positive that this is a trend that is going to last, but for at least a season it is refreshing.
While the best aren’t truly at their best this season, the middle of the pack schools are playing every night like they can beat anyone and they have. Schools like DePaul and Butler stealing top 100 prospects is definitely part of the shrinking gap, while they also have the experience to beat teams that don’t have the same talent as years previous. Just look at the best players in the country this season (pretending Vernon Carey doesn’t exist for a second): Cassius Winston, Udoka Azubuike, Jordan Nwora, Myles Powell and Payton Pritchard to name a few. Notice the abundance of upperclassmen and the lack of freshman. This is the direction college basketball is going in. More teams led by 22 year olds and less by 18 year olds. To prove my point outside of the blue bloods just look at a few of the surprise teams of the year: Dayton, San Diego State and Rutgers. There is not a freshmen on any of these teams that is more than a role player. Those who harp on the importance of experience over talent may be quick to retort my claims of “madness” because they saw this coming. The “mid-majors” have the seniors to compete with any group of freshman in the country. That is not to say a starting five of a couple freshman can’t beat down a Rutgers, but it is far less likely. The majority of freshmen aren’t going to college to win a national championship anymore. They’re looking for the easiest way to the NBA and while that may be having their “own team” it could also mean going abroad. The future is bright for experienced mid majors and less certain for blue bloods. “Madness” may very well be the new normal.
Tamir March is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.