In the first month of every college basketball season, pundits and fans alike joke about how “nobody is good this year,” due to ranked teams, and occasionally the No. 1 team, losing games early in the season. Who is the best team? Where are the dominant blue bloods we’re used to seeing? But this year feels different. If my research checks out, nine top-10 teams have lost in the first four weeks of the season, including the No. 1 ranked team three times.
- No. 2 Kentucky beat No. 1 Michigan State
- Evansville beat No. 1 Kentucky (In Lexington, no less)
- Stephen F. Austin beat No. 1 Duke (In Durham, too)
So, what in tarnation is going on? Is any game really a “safe win” when even teams like Kentucky and Duke are losing to unranked teams at home? And how could this impact the NCAA Tournament down the road?
Reason #1 - All the best players are leaving school early
This isn’t a recent development, as the “one and done” movement arrived over a decade ago. Can you blame them? If you’re a potential first round pick, there’s no incentive to stay in school and get your degree if you could also go make millions in the NBA.
However, does the loss of top players drop teams like Kentucky and Duke to the level of Evansville and Stephen F. Austin? Absolutely not. On paper, Kentucky and Duke should have each won their games by 30 points. The talent on Duke and Kentucky is incredible, but where they lack is experience and leadership. In close games, coaches lean on more experienced players to grab the wheel and guide their teams through rocky waters.
Duke is a perfect example of a team who lacks experience and thus may struggle in tight games. Let’s take a look at Duke’s starting lineup against Stephen F. Austin to examine how old these guys are:
- Matthew Hurt, Freshman (F)
- Wendell Moore Jr., Freshman (F)
- Vernon Carey Jr., Freshman (C)
- Cassius Stanley, Freshman (G)
- Tre Jones, Sophomore (G) - The old man of the group at age 19!
So, not to rag on the Dookies, but they’re just too perfect an example of why we’ll probably see less “dominant” teams going forward. Is Duke talented? Absolutely. Will they win 30 games this year? Probably! Could they beat anybody in the country on any given day? Without question. But could they also lose to a 15 seed in March if the game is close down the stretch? Yes.
Duke’s loss to Stephen F. Austin is the biggest upset in college basketball in the last 15 seasons, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. Duke was favored by 27.5.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) November 27, 2019
Reason #2- Fewer of the top players in the class of 2019 committed to the traditional “blue bloods”
Are coaches dropping money bags or do kids just really want to play close to home? Is it that players really want to play for a specific coach, regardless of which school they’re at? Whatever the case, the top of the 2019 class didn’t gravitate towards the traditional blue bloods like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, etc. Heck, some players chose to go overseas and play professionally instead of playing college basketball completely! Here is a snapshot of where the top ten players in the class of 2019 went, courtesy of ESPN’s recruiting database:
Cole Anthony is at North Carolina and Vernon Carey Jr. is dominating for Duke, but aside form those two, none of the other top 10 committed to play at your traditional powerhouses. The No. 5 player in the class, R.J. Hampton, chose to play in New Zealand professionally this season to prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft. James Wiseman (No. 1) and Anthony Edwards (No. 4) both chose to stay in-state and play for their local universities. Washington was able to reel in a couple top-10 commits in Isaiah Stewart (No. 3) and Jaden McDaniels (No. 7). Amidst a cloud of FBI controversy, Sean Miller and Arizona quietly bagged the No. 8 and 9 prospects, guards Josh Green and Nico Mannion.
With fewer of the nation’s elite freshmen playing at traditional powerhouse schools, the talent is sprinkled all over the map, rather than getting concentrated all at the top. After watching Duke steamroll teams with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish last year, it’s been nice to watch programs like Georgia and Memphis get revived with the injection of some of these top recruits. It’s especially fun when recruits stay in-state and play for their local schools. Anthony Edwards had offers from Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina, but chose to stay and play for Tom Crean at Georgia. How can you not root for a guy who who stays home?
How this impacts March Madness
Simply put, it makes it even more unpredictable. No pick is a safe pick. We’ve officially seen a No. 1 seed lose to a 16-seed, so we know anything can happen. One bad game, and your season is over. But because the metaphorical wealth is spread across so many teams this year, rather than having a few powerhouse teams that stick out above the others, picking a “chalk” Final Four isn’t as safe as it once seemed.
The last time a No. 1 seed was not in the national championship game was 2014, when Shabazz Napier and the 7th seeded Connecticut Huskies marched all the way to the final game and beat the 8th seeded Kentucky Wildcats to win it all. It has been five years since then, and each year a No. 1 seed has made it to the final game. This may be the year that changes.
So no, there may not be any teams this year that are head and shoulders above the rest. But the next time you see No. 1 get beat, it isn’t because that team isn’t great, it’s actually because there are so many great teams this season. The chaos of college basketball is what draws us in and keeps us coming back for more. Like the legend Jon Rothstein says time and time again, this isn’t anarchy, it’s just college basketball.
Six days ago, Stephen F. Austin lost at Rutgers by 12.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 27, 2019
Tonight, it won a game against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Nope. Just College Basketball.