Follow the bouncing ball? That’s easy. Follow the bouncing team? That’s what’s so hard about this college basketball season.
The “bouncing team” dynamic can simply refer to any team which displays a great deal of volatility over the course of the season. It is better understood as the combination of rapidly declining teams (from a previously lofty perch) on one hand, and rising bubble teams on the other. We discussed this in an examination of the fading fortunes of Texas A&M, Providence, and SMU.
What’s true in college football is true in college basketball: You can’t evaluate a team’s resume based on the way a given opponent was playing — or where it was ranked — at the time of a matchup. It is the perhaps unfortunate yet undeniable variable of college sports, governed by selection committees as they are: The resume is always going to be a prisoner of how teams ultimately finish their seasons.
If you play a team in its worst moment, but that team transforms itself in due time and becomes a top-15 team by the end of the season, it’s your lucky day. If you catch a team at its height, and it then proceeds to lose six of its next seven games, you’re straight out of luck. So it goes… but so it must be honored.
Resume evaluations simply can’t work in other ways. Favors can’t be granted, and shortcuts can’t be allowed, for “given form at the time of the matchup” or “Team A was ranked third when we beat them!”
That’s not how it works. It’s not how it can ever work.
Half-seasons, thirds of a season, body clocks (remember Stanford-Northwestern in football?) — we could compile a list of all sorts of qualifiers and excuses and rationalizations. They don’t hold up under the weight of intense scrutiny. Finished products — full resumes — offer the only legitimate and lasting basis for selecting (and excluding) teams from playoff quartets and postseason tournaments with 17 times as many teams. Such is the world of college sports, one that all its fans and observers must accept.
With this as prelude, we’re continuing to wrestle with the immense churn and upheaval in college basketball. The lack of stability in the sport this season means that resume evaluations will remain fluid throughout February. The need to continue to pay attention to various teams — as they bounce from positions of weakness to positions of strength, and vice-versa — is paramount.
One particularly relevant case study is Wisconsin, which we addressed earlier this week. If any team played the Badgers in December, it was facing a shadow of the kind of team we’ve been accustomed to over the past 15 years. Yet, in relatively short order, Greg Gard has begun to remake the Badgers in Bo Ryan’s image. Wisconsin, which defeated Nebraska without too much trouble on Wednesday night, is steaming toward — yes, it’s possible again! — another top-four finish in the Big Ten, which would extend one of the most remarkable streaks in college hoops.
Of greater significance to the whole of college basketball, any team which beat the Badgers at any previous point in the season is gaining a win which grows in value. Accumulations of those kinds of wins — seemingly minor in December, but now much more substantive — change the nature of resumes.
Another example of this “bouncing team” dynamic is the combination of Kentucky and UCLA.
Kentucky will make the NCAAs, while UCLA is very much on the bubble. Both teams have undergone wild fluctuations in performance and results this season (though one could make the counter-argument that when Kentucky beat Duke, it was not the high-end win many people thought it would be at the time). With three weeks left in February, the Wildcats and Bruins must step through many landmines and fortify their respective positions — Kentucky in the pursuit of a seed where it can do damage, UCLA in the chase for a tourney ticket of any kind.
How these teams fare in those pursuits will have something to say about the way in which both resumes are evaluated a month from now.
It’s true that with Kentucky, the Wildcats’ main concern is to iron out their problems and acquire the rhythm a good team cultivates near the end of a college basketball season. If they do that, their standing will rise. It’s also true that with UCLA, a convincing romp through the Pac-12 in the coming weeks will render this discussion moot. However, one can appreciate the larger point in a discussion such as this one: If neither Big Blue nor the Bruins makes a supremely convincing statement in the weeks to come — and especially if one or both teams fall to a much lower place in the pecking order — the anxiety which is so much a part of every college basketball journey will only become more acute.
UCLA needing Kentucky to do well? Marquette needing Wisconsin to do well?
Strange bedfellows are alive and well in college basketball 2016.