College basketball is, by nature, crazy and hard to sort out… but this season is already pushing the boundaries of what’s so fascinatingly fragile about the sport.
You don’t need to write elaborate explanations in order to capture the up-for-grabs nature of this season at its Janus-inspired midpoint, with two months of regular season action down and two to go.
Short paths lead to and reinforce the simple conclusion: this season is waiting to be claimed by dozens of teams, in terms of No. 1 seeds, conference championships, and the final at-large NCAA tournament bids on the board. Hardly anything seems settled, Kansas winning the Big 12 being the exception which proves the rule. (Villanova winning the Big East is another exception.)
Just a few teams — and the contained theaters of activity which flow from their results — suffice to paint the picture of this wild and jumbled season.
It is very hard to pin down LSU, California, and North Carolina State — three teams with great talent, shaky coaching, and resumes that are dominated by question marks. How their seasons evolve will, in turn, help shape the profiles of many other teams across the country. Those teams are mysteries in themselves, but other teams who beat them are praying the Tigers, Bears and Pack (oh, my!) will become high-quality wins in early March, when those guys in Indianapolis settle into their war room with ice cream and reams of data.
Teams which defeated Wichita State when the Shockers were particularly thin and injury-depleted will demand monitoring. Alabama and USC are two foremost examples. The Crimson Tide have a first-year head coach (Avery Johnson), and the Andy Enfield rebuild in Los Angeles is trying to get off the ground this winter. Both teams have reason for optimism, but it’s simply too early to tell how (and where) they fit into their wide-open conferences.
Let’s take the SEC first.
The SEC has endured a rough season to this point — Vanderbilt has been a huge national disappointment. Michael White is not hitting the mark at Florida. Kentucky has the look of a No. 3 or No. 4 seed. This was supposed to be a season in which the upper half of the 14-team conference became conspicuously better, but that hasn’t happened. Only Texas A&M and South Carolina have fully lived up to expectations. Uncertainty is once again the theme of the year in the conference, since several schools have not provided the clarity which comes from convincing conquests and a trajectory defined by substantial improvement. How Alabama performs within the SEC will be quite intriguing, but do we have any real sense of what the Crimson Tide will do? Not really.
It’s similar with USC. The Trojans are certainly (and already) better than they were in either of Enfield’s first two very rough seasons, but now comes the challenge of trying to consolidate gains to the point that USC can be a part of the at-large conversation all the way through the season. The Trojans had a great chance to sweep their first Pac-12 road trip, but they let a double-figure lead slip away against Washington, another mysterious Pac-12 team. (The whole conference, save for Arizona, is hard to figure at this point.) Was that an aberrational event, something the Trojans will learn from, or will it cast a shadow over the coming weeks?
We’ll find out soon enough, but again, it’s extremely hard to state with any confidence what the answer might be. That’s college basketball right now.
Let’s offer just a few other examples of how predictions seem like fool’s errands at this point in the journey to Bracketville in March:
UCLA beat Kentucky and Gonzaga but has just gotten swept by the Washington schools in the Pac-12. Kentucky itself is struggling, and Gonzaga — without Przemek Karnowski — becomes a different team which demands a fresh evaluation. That short three-team path is a puzzle unto itself.
The Big East has a highly-touted team (Butler) which has stumbled early in conference play; a team which plummeted to the bottom of the league last season (Creighton) and is trying to see how high it can climb this year; and a Xavier team which is in the No. 1 seed conversation, creating a spicy and entirely unexpected plot point. That’s a deliciously entertaining league, at least in terms of the variety of storylines on display.
Virginia Tech’s early statement wins over North Carolina State and Virginia have shaken up the ACC. So has Florida State’s 0-2 stumble in the conference. Are the Hokies for real? Will the Seminoles regroup? So many questions, so little feel for how they’ll be answered.
This is just a small survey of the landscape in college basketball. This weekend, you might want to fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a wild and bumpy ride.