Last season the Kentucky Wildcats lost just two games en route to the program's eighth NCAA Tournament title. Two. They lost only one game during the regular season, a thriller against Indiana and, even then, only dropped the game on a buzzer-beating three point shot from Christian Watford. Yet aside from that stumble at Assembly Hall and a loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game, Kentucky was the dominant, wire-to-wire favorite to win the national championship.
This season, there hasn't been a team in D1 with only one loss since week 13 of the season. At one point, the #1 ranked team in the AP poll lost for five consecutive weeks. In week 14, four of the top five teams in the AP rankings lost. The sole survivor, Duke, barely escaped Boston College with a win on Sunday of that week. It's safe to say that being highly ranked has been no guarantee of success this season.
Parity has been the buzzword around NCAA basketball for a number of years, ever since George Mason's surprise run to the Final Four in 2006. Usually it's used to refer to mid-major programs stepping up to challenge the big dogs from BCS conferences; the Butlers, Gonzagas, Davidsons, VCUs and Creightons of college basketball. This year, though, parity really refers to the top programs challenging each other. There is no Kentucky this season. No team that's been able to run through the gauntlet virtually unscathed.
What does this mean, though, about the state of college basketball as a whole? Are there simply a lot of really good teams out there? Or are the teams that were so highly touted early on simply not as good as we all thought? This is a job for the TNIAAM panel of contributors. Think Wilbon and Kornheiser, just with more hair.
Matt McClusky: It's probably an indictment on basketball as a whole, but college hoops is definitely being played at a lower level than we've seen in years. And with such a big problem there is probably a lot of blame to go around. But, as much as I don't want to go in this direction, it's tough not to think the parity and the lesser quality of play is due to one-and-done mentality. -- Thanks to high school's playing Harlem Globetrotters schedules, AAU ball, and the endless parade of summer tournaments, kids are more exposed than ever -- so the majority aren't thinking about NCAA championships, they're thinking about improving their draft stock. That leads to poorer team play as freshmen are getting what used to be upperclassman minutes and they're given leadership roles too early. -- Plus, teams are rebuilding or reloading more frequently. Look at Kentucky for example: a program that just won the national championship is barely a middling team in the SEC. Dealing with kids going pro after one or two years leaves issues for programs for years to come. Like Syracuse attempting to replace a Dion Waiters (who left after his sophomore year), you can find points somewhere but replacing his game takes time. I'm not sure if the solution is changing the one-year NBA rule and adding one year or just eliminating the rule entirely, but I believe the quality of play is way down due to years of kids playing to go pro and then actually following through with that plan a little too early for everyone involved.
John Cassillo: To me, it just appears as if the talent gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" is virtually non-existent. So now, we have a larger handful of "very good" teams than before, but none that are necessarily "great." Look at the top teams in the country -- Indiana, Florida, Michigan, Duke -- all of them have some fatal flaw that's been exploited at least a few times this year. Teams like Butler, Gonzaga, Creighton and St. Louis, all from mid-major conferences, now likely have a better shot than ever to reach the Final Four. In many ways, it reminds me a lot of the 2005-06 season; every team in the country had at least three losses going into the tournament and one of the top seeds (Villanova) even had four losses. With no dominant team out there, it was truly anyone's game -- resulting in George Mason's famed Final Four run and a final weekend without a number-one seed. I'm expecting much of the same in this year's tournament, which should make for a wild month of basketball.
Andrew Pregler: Parity. What the NFL so gloriously proclaims it possesses and creates a sort of moral judgement upon all other sports for not possessing. Collegiate parity is different. There will always be rich schools and there will always be not as rich schools. However, college basketball has always challenged this. Small schools make runs and the Big East features programs dependent on basketball success. However this season, there is either perfect parity or a lack of talent. I personally believe it is both. First, parity in that today, social media, the internet and superior budgets at even small schools allow for coaches to access the best players easier than ever. Coaches can now check Scout, Rivals or Max Preps for updates on thousands of high school players and can compete for their talents. The talent is spread out, which isn't a bad thing. But I think the talent pool in general has shrunk. The NBA one-and-done rule to me is stupidity and greed at it's finest. The NCAA wanted players for money, the NBA wanted players for money and they both wanted them ASAP. Thus, the NBA created the rule and coaches get one year with elite players. Great coaches used to be able to mold a elite athlete into an elite basketball player. That can't happen in one year. I am in the firm belief that until the NBA creates an NFL-like 3 year rule, this is College Basketball from now until ever. I'm not the biggest fan, but I doubt David Stern is going to change a thing. Coaches like Calipari have found one way of success (All One and Dones) while guys like Boeheim (Mix of one and dones + traditional four year pieces) have found others.
Sean Keeley: First of all, let's be clear. Parity is great. I don't understand that undercurrent that seems to seep into the discussion so often when it comes to parity that it represents a bad thing. Unfortunately, as much as many people won't admit it, they like knowing Duke and North Carolina are both really good and playing one another. It's easy, it's dependable and it doesn't require anything other than preconceived notions about those teams. But when you say that Miami and Gonzaga are among the best teams, that pisses some people off because it requires work to care about that. You actually have to find out about these teams, who they are, and what you should think about them. God forbid.
Anyway, I think parity has slowly but surely been happening for a while in NCAA basketball. Sure, you can point to the years that Butler or VCU made it to the Final Four as proof but the real proof is the way those mid-level schools are competing with the elite programs year-in and year-out. Obviously, the talent pool has thinned because all of the top players leave early for the NBA, which means elite schools lack the superstars of the past and mid-level teams are full of juniors/seniors that can match up.
Dan Lyons: I think that there are plenty of good, even very good teams in college basketball...possibly even more than we see in a normal year. The issue here is that these are teams that would probably be ranked 10 or so in a strong year for the sport, but there are no elite teams. We seem to go through these cycles of years where there are a number of really strong contenders, last year comes to mind with that ridiculous Kentucky squad and even our Syracuse team was probably better than anything out there this season when at full strength. This season, we have plenty of teams playing at a high level, but none transcend it, hence the crazy streak of number one teams losing every week. Honestly, I think it's made this year pretty fun. It probably isn't good for the sport long term, but it should make for an awesome NCAA tournament this year. As a Syracuse fan, this is probably as good a year for this to happen as any. We have a very flawed team (don't tell Providence), but so does everyone else, so I don't think you can rule out a ton of teams as not being title contenders.
Jeremy Ryan: This is a cop-out, but I'm going to say "both". I think every year we have teams that start out highly ranked, but their weaknesses are exposed and they end up coming down to Earth. Kentucky, NC State, UCLA and North Carolina - I'm looking at you. On the other hand, you'll see teams that were more or less unheralded to start, but by the time February rolls around we have a better sense of just how good they are. Michigan State and Gonzaga immediately come to mind. Factor in that this year's top preseason teams were generally younger than last year's, and therefore more volatile, and I think that parity is more evident than usual this season.
As for me, I want to pull a Wilbon on this one and split the difference with a push. On the one hand, you have teams like Michigan who, despite multiple losses have all dropped games to quality opponents. Three of the Wolverines four losses have come at the hands ranked teams and the fourth was at Wisconsin. On the other hand, you have a team like Miami (FL), currently ranked second in the AP poll. The Hurricanes have been on a tremendous streak, no doubt. And one of their three losses was against a very good Arizona team. The other two, though, were against Florida Gulf Coast (by 12!?) and Indiana State. Not exactly quality L's.
What I think it boils down to is that there simply is a team like the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats was truly special. While the contention that they could have beaten the worst squad in the NBA is laughable, UK was clearly the class of the NCAA in 2012. There just isn't a team like that this year. That doesn't necessarily mean that this year's top teams aren't good, or ever great, in their own right. Just that the field this year is less superhuman. It might seem like the front runners for this year's title just aren't as good as expected, but I really think it's the other way around. There are close to ten teams capable of winning it all and not because the squads on the line above them aren't good, but because there can only be one #1 ranked team, there can only be four #1 seeds. This might be a tournament where the top three NCAA #2 seeds are really more like #1A, #1B and #1C. It's going to be a loaded field because everyone is strong, not because everyone it weak.