Every year college basketball starts to pick up around this time. Teams are closing out their season and conference tournaments are getting ready to start. And along with that, many are starting to think on who their favorites will be heading into March Madness. Plenty are probably even scouting teams to see who they will pick to win it all. Usually by this time, there are a few teams that many are sold on in regards to having a good chance to win the title. Last year, there were really high hopes for the University of Kentucky and Duke was also a team many thought of as winning the title. Duke was able to do so and prove many right about them. And while Kentucky did not win the title, they made it all the way to the Final Four before being upset by Wisconsin. Coming into this year’s tournament, there is not that much certainty on who could win the tournament. There are some nights that there are apparently obvious teams that could win it all. And the next game, that same team comes out and lays an egg. So why so much parity in college basketball this year you ask?
The mass exodus to the NBA from programs has caught up to college programs, especially the top ones. Teams like Kentucky, who lost seven players, and Duke, which lost four (five if you want to count the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon), had a lot to replace coming into this season. And unlike the previous times when they were able to just reload and still be the same team, this year has been different. Duke, which has not exactly been the deepest team over the years, is really short this year with depth. And with senior forward Amile Jefferson missing most of the season with a foot injury, the Blue Devils were even more depleted. They have essentially been playing one big man all year (Marshall Plumlee) to go along with what they have. And because of that, they have been up and down all year long. Duke replaced their talent with more talent this year, but the magnitude of players they lost compared to what they have now is not even close. As far as Kentucky, they have been solid this season, but have not lived up to the hype they have had each and every season. They replaced the seven players they lost last season with the #1 recruiting class in the nation. And even though they brought in talent to replace talent, they have not been the same or played to the same level. They are starting to play well, but they have been up and down all season long. They sorely miss some of the guys they had last year and they are definitely not as deep a team. The fear they put into teams last season is not there in regards to this team and the effect they have on their opponents. And along with the fear they put into each opponent, some of the composure and experience walked right to the professional level.
But other than losing players, there are just some imbalanced teams that are out there this year. Some teams have good inside play and shaky guard play while others have good guard play and nothing inside. Teams like North Carolina and Oklahoma come to mind as imbalanced. North Carolina has been strong inside all year. Senior forward Brice Johnson has been the man inside, giving the Tar Heels 16 double-doubles all year long. And when the Tar Heels attack the basket as a whole, they can overwhelm you. But the make or break thing about them is their three-point shooting. When teams force them to shoot the basketball more, there can be an issue. For example, in their most recent loss to their rival, the Duke Blue Devils, the Tar Heels went ice cold from three-point range. They shot 1/13 from behind the stripe and they froze out Johnson essentially in the last 15 minutes. This deficiency in their game is one thing that has cost them time and time again (along with some games where they come out in a malaise). As far as Oklahoma, they were better than some thought they would be at the start of the season. Behind senior guard Buddy Hield, the Sooners have been shooting the lights out for most of the season. But when they lose, more times than not it is because they depend so heavily on their perimeter game. They do not have one player that can really get it going inside when they are missing the three-pointers. And since they have gotten into conference play, they have not been as sharp with the jumpers and threes they take. The result has been a few losses this year in the conference and people are starting to cool on them. The reliance on jumpers and threes can be something that could harm this team in a one-game scenario and could ultimately lead to their downfall.
The collective inexperience across the county with teams along with the imbalanced teams have led to the current climate we have going into the tournament. And what this has created is a tournament that is wide open. Anyone that can pick which teams make the Finals Four with 100% accuracy needs to play the lottery immediately. I hope everyone is ready to be entertained. This college basketball season is going to have an exciting finish.