We are not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
There will be plenty of good basketball teams this season, several of whom will emerge as contenders to win the national championship. Strong players with strong coaches at historic programs. All across the country, this will be the case as it is every year.
And yet, something feels off this season.
It’s December and there is plenty of confusion already about who those top teams will be. In five weeks of the AP Poll in the 2019-20 season, voters have named four different teams number one (Michigan State, Kentucky, Duke, and Louisville). In a sport as chaotic as college basketball, that may sound typical. Looking at recent history, that’s not the case.
Last season, we didn’t have a fourth program hit the top spot until January 21 and there were only four teams to sit atop the rankings all year (Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga, and Tennessee).
In 2018, there were also four number ones throughout the season, with the fourth program hitting the top of the charts in mid-February. In 2017 and 2016, we saw seven and six different clubs on top throughout the season. In 2015, Kentucky’s unbeaten regular season kept them atop of the AP Poll all year long.
Already having four number ones is an anomaly, with tough conference schedules ahead sure to throw a wrench into things and increase that number as the season builds.
Many people will blame the preseason (and early season) polls for this season’s rockiness. Before we’ve seen many games, the polls can feel like a guess. Historical records show that’s not the case.
Since 2000, there have been 200 teams in the preseason top 10 of the AP Poll. Come season’s end, 82.5 percent (165 of 200) finished in the year’s final top 25. There is tons of precedent that says that the most talented teams earn their way to the top by the end of the year.
This season, that looks to be more of a struggle. The preseason top 15 teams have a combined 22 losses so far this season, with only two of those 15 still undefeated (Louisville and Maryland). It may seem inconsequential that these talented teams have two or three losses in early December, yet when we look at the arms race that develops to earn a number one seed in March, these losses will matter.
Over the last five seasons, the twenty teams that were awarded top seeds in the NCAA Tournament averaged a total of 4.1 losses for the regular season and conference tournament. Only four of those twenty teams lost more than five games all year.
Michigan State already has three losses. So do Purdue and Texas Tech. Florida, Villanova, North Carolina, Seton Hall, and Oregon each have two losses. All of those teams have played strong schedules. Few have scheduled true road tests. None has truly begun the gauntlet of conference play.
Even the highly ranked teams with one loss have looked supremely flawed.
Virginia’s defense was performing historically well, until it regressed to the mean and then some, with the Hoos losing by 29 at Purdue. Virginia’s offense had been good enough to survive because its defense had been so strong. When the Boilermakers made shots, Virginia had no answer. The Hoos offense ranks 120th in college basketball in adjusted efficiency. That ranks behind pedestrian programs like Air Force (187th overall in KenPom) Green Bay (202nd), Austin Peay (203rd), and Tennessee Martin (311th!!). Remember, those numbers are adjusted for opponent. This Cavaliers’ offense has been putrid and extremely lucky to be able to live on defense alone.
While Virginia was being pounded in West Lafayette on Wednesday night, North Carolina was having struggles of its own. The Tar Heels lost to Ohio State by 25 at home. It was the program’s second worst home loss in 56 years, dating back through three different arenas!
Adding insult to injury, North Carolina’s most important big man, freshman Armando Bacot, suffered an ankle sprain that should sideline him for several weeks (if not longer) and leave the Heels severely undermanned for the time being.
In other blue blood news, Kentucky lost to a team outside the KenPom 130 for the first time in John Calipari’s tenure and Duke lost a home game to a mid-major for the first time since Tootsie was in theaters.
Every March when the top seeded teams are being toppled, we are quick to ask if the madness is even crazier than normal. We never can recall if things are always as wild as they seem to be.
The numbers don’t lie. This has already been an abnormally rocky season. That has ripple effects that will last until April.
With so many of the expected top ranked teams struggling to come to form, there is a vacuum atop the national landscape. To quote our old friend Petyr Baelish, chaos is a ladder. If these teams sputter, the AP still needs a top five and the selection committee still needs one seeds and two seeds. December is a perfect time for new contenders to emerge.
We’ve already seen that to some extent. The Ohio State team that crushed Carolina also defeated Villanova by 25 points. Chris Holtman has a real star in Kaleb Wesson and a deep team built around the junior big man.
In Maui, Dayton looked like a top ten team and Obi Toppin played the part of an All-American, as the Flyers advanced to the Maui Invitational final. Maryland, Michigan, and Arizona all look ready for primetime. Louisville sits atop the rankings, undefeated for now with upcoming dates with Pitt, Texas Tech, and hated Kentucky in the near future.
Maybe by the time we’re flipping calendars these will be the teams we’re focused on as national championship hopefuls. Maybe some, or all, of the preseason contenders will have straightened things out. Until then, there is a plethora of great basketball to be played. With the ACC and Big Ten firing up conference play in the next two weeks, we’ll start to see more teams playing true road games and more questions answered. This may be the most intriguing and important December college basketball has seen in many years.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.