|North Carolina isn't leading the charge in the ACC. They trail N.C. State currently. Anyone see that coming? (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Matt Norlander
This is not the superb year of college basketball that we expected.
In some ways I’m getting ahead of myself, because so much of every year is judged by its climax, so without the benefit of knowing what March and the first Monday of April will bring, we can’t say how, as a whole, the 2011-12 season will be perceived. So far it’s been something of a let-down. It’s my fault. It’s the fault of any fan or writer who got romantic over the notion this season could vault itself back to the halcyon ‘80s or mid-‘90s, before the NBA pilfered the premier talent as soon as possible.
We still have most of the same teams at the top of the polls now as were there in November, but the action hasn’t been as good, the sport hasn’t been in the conversation as much as expected — thanks for buckling to the owners’ demands, NBA players — and UNC, Duke, Ohio State, UConn and Baylor have all suffered some swoons. It’s not been a bad season by any stretch, but college basketball, for about the 12th straight year, has failed to create morning-after discussion that enraptures the country. Ironically, or perhaps the very reason why we’re not so enamored with the sport, is the result of most conference races being in flux — more than usual.
Outside of Kentucky in the SEC and maybe Syracuse in the Big East, we lack semblance of what to expect and certainly don't have teams gripping their leagues by the throat. Bad news. The last thing college basketball needs is parity. Tight league races bring great anticipation but just as many questions. Unfortunately, the races aren’t close at the top because so many teams are good; instead, too many squads have proven they know how many ways in which to lose. We’ve got highly ranked teams failing to play bully, so that prevents the mainstream from latching on to a subset of top-level squads who fail transcend the games they play.
Look at the hideous Pac-12, which causes a gag reflex upon any discussion. Cal, Oregon, Washington and Colorado all have two losses. Collectively, it’s among the weakest years for major conferences in the modern era. That’s due in large part to this league. The Pac-12 is on a collision course of playing itself into only one bid, which would be unprecedented and certainly make commissioner Larry Scott consider kicking an Arizona State out of the conference in favor of a group that will actually accomplish something. Perhaps Ron Swanson’s youth team would be willing to make the commitment. Nobody wants to take charge at the kiddie table?
|Ohio State should win the Big Ten, but how convinced are you that it will? (US PRESSWIRE)|
The ACC’s got a three-way tie you didn’t expect at all, one that doesn’t include North Carolina, who should ultimately win the league … but who knows. Duke, Florida State and N.C. State are all 4-1 at the moment. Right now, there’s only a two-game difference in the loss column from the top to the 10th team in the standings, 2-3 Boston College.
The Big East is just as clogged from 1 (Syracuse) to 9 (Notre Dame, which ended SU’s undefeated season Saturday), separated by two losses. Below SU in the Big East is a 10-car pileup that won’t be sorted out for weeks. We’re not used to seeing this league be so confused over parity or genuine top-level competition. Thank God the Orange pulled out a nice win at Cincinnati Monday night, lest this column really have a hammer to beat its point into the ground. Even though the Orange is the favorite, there have been questions about how good the team actually is. The fact some don’t think Syracuse looks like a true one seed right now tells you what you need to know about the sport.
Kentucky and Kansas are the only major-conference teams without a blemish at this point. Almost everyone expects Kentucky to win its league. Kansas? Hey, they’ve looked great, but road games at Iowa State, Missouri and Baylor are still upcoming. The Bears, Tigers and Jayhawks are likely to push each other down the track to the final weekend of regular-season play — and then you can expect a different winner from the regular-season champ when the Big 12 tourney finishes. Just feels like one of those years.
The Atlantic 10’s as much of a mess as any league; 12 of the 14 teams are separated by two games. Conference USA is once again a level below, and it’s reinforced by not having Memphis there to prop the league up and offer a team that’s even Sweet 16-worthy. Central Florida, Memphis, Tulsa, Southern Miss and Marshall. Those are five teams who could win C-USA. Another Magic 8-Ball shake of a conference race. This is all exciting to some degree, but when will we see true separation? Without those tiers of teams, upsets in March don’t feel as shocking and the sport in general feels watered down.
When our expectations get altered, and when there are fewer great teams, there is no oomph. College basketball needs four or five really good, really interesting teams to be truly relevant prior to Valentine’s Day. It hasn’t had that so far, and so this year is now beginning to look like most others from the recent past. Get us to March as soon as possible so we can see what this season really has to offer. Just because most conference races are close doesn’t mean they’re interesting, at least not yet.
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