As Some Blue Bloods Struggle, Other Teams Are Creating More Balance
Unlike in college football, where Georgia romped to the national championship this week, there is no clear dominant team in men’s college basketball this season.
As many as 10 teams could cut down the nets on April 1 at Houston’s NRG Stadium, with No. 1 Houston, No. 2 Kansas (the reigning champion) and even No. 9 Arizona among the top favorites.
“The balance is so good in the country, it’s going to be hard to get into the tournament this year when you look at the number of teams,” Jim Boeheim, now in his 47th season coaching at Syracuse, said Monday. “People want to say it’s mediocrity, but it’s not. There’s just good balance. There’s a lot of good teams.”
The No. 1 ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 poll has already rotated several times, with North Carolina, Purdue and Houston all holding the top spot. Purdue remained undefeated through the start of 2023 but suffered its first loss on Jan. 2 at home to Rutgers, a team that beat thethen-No. 1 Boilermakers last season, too.
New Mexico remained unbeaten through Jan. 3, when it lost at Fresno State, and then proceeded to lose its next game against U.N.L.V. Connecticut started the season with 14 consecutive wins before dropping back-to-back Big East contests on the road against Xavier and Providence, surging teams now ranked among the Top 25.
Here are several themes to keep in mind as the college basketball season heats up.
The Big 12 is loaded.
As expected, the Big 12 Conference is absolutely stacked from top to bottom, and it’s possible that eight or nine of the league’s 10 teams (yes, there are 10 teams in the Big 12) could make the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament. Half of the conference is ranked: No. 2 Kansas, No. 10 Texas, No. 11 Kansas State, No. 14 Iowa State and No. 17 T.C.U.
The past two national champions have come from the Big 12 — Baylor in 2021 and Kansas last year. Texas Tech reached the championship game in 2019, losing in overtime to Virginia.
Kansas Coach Bill Self and his team look like the potential overall No. 1 seed this year, especially after roaring back from a 10-point second-half deficit Tuesday to beat Oklahoma at Allen Fieldhouse.
“We’ve been battle tested so much this year, especially with close games. We always find a way to stay composed,” said Kansas forward Jalen Wilson, a contender for national player of the year honors. “We just continued to play our ball. There’s no 10-point play, so there’s no point in rushing the shots.”
The Big Ten is still eyeing its first title since 2000.
The Big Ten hasn’t won a national championship since Michigan State in 2000. Since then, the Atlantic Coast Conference has won eight championships, the Big East six (Louisville’s 2013 title was later vacated) and the Big 12 and Southeastern Conference three apiece.
Boeheim didn’t mince words when he called out the Big Ten to reporters at the start of the season, saying that the league was not good in last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament.
The Big Ten put nine teams into the 68-team field last season, and only two — Purdue and Michigan — reached the round of 16, where they both lost.
“If you can’t play in the tournament, then you’re just not good,” Boeheim said.
The Big Ten has just two ranked teams in No. 3 Purdue and No. 18 Wisconsin but is projected to put more than half of its 14 teams into the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Purdue, with its 7-foot-4 center, Zach Edey, a national player of the year candidate, may be the league’s best hope to end the championship drought.
Several top-tier programs are struggling.
After reaching the N.C.A.A. championship game last season and returning four of five starters, North Carolina was ranked as the preseason No. 1 amid expectations that it could win the program’s seventh national championship.
“I want them to cut down the nets on that Monday night, and I want them to have long N.B.A. careers,” Hubert Davis, who led the Tar Heels to the title game in his first season as head coach, said in an interview in September.
The Tar Heels tumbled out of the national rankings altogether in early December after losing four straight games. They returned briefly, dropped out again and fell to 11-6 after losing Tuesday at Virginia. U.N.C.’s star center Armando Bacot sustained an ankle injury during the team’s first possession of the game.
If there were a silver lining for North Carolina fans, it would be that they began last season with a similar record (12-6) before discovering their mojo during March Madness.
Kentucky, winner of eight national championships, began the season at No. 4 and is also unranked while fans grow increasingly disenchanted with Coach John Calipari.
Despite having the reigning national player of the year, Oscar Tshiebwe, and plenty of supporting talent, Kentucky (10-6, 1-3 SEC) has lost back-to-back games, at Alabama by 26 points and at home to South Carolina. Kentucky still doesn’t own a single win in Quad 1, a metric that rates an opponent’s quality for the N.C.A.A. selection committee.
Fans booed Calipari at Rupp Arena on Tuesday, and one was kicked out for refusing to give up a sign directed at the coach that read, “Please go to Texas.”
Texas last week fired Coach Chris Beard nearly a month after he was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge. Calipari, who has a lifetime contract at Kentucky, had been loosely linked to the job, but he said this week, “I haven’t talked to anybody.”
As for his message to Kentucky fans: “We’ve got to be better, and that’s on me. We’re on a mission.”
Duke, under the first-year coach Jon Scheyer, 35, who replaced Mike Krzyzewski, isn’t in such dire straits, but his team has fallen to No. 24 after starting the season at No. 7. The Blue Devils (12-4) have lost two of their past four games.
Villanova (8-9), a new-age blue blood that won two national championships under Coach Jay Wright, is also struggling under the first-year coach Kyle Neptune, 37, who had just one year of head coaching experience at Fordham before taking over for Wright when he retired in April. The Wildcats have lost four of their past five games and continue to play without senior guard Justin Moore, who tore his right Achilles’ tendon during Villanova’s run to the Final Four last year. Unless the Wildcats win the Big East Conference Tournament, it appears they will miss the N.C.A.A. tournament for the first time since 2012.
Historically tough times at Georgetown.
Calipari isn’t the only coach on the hot seat.
Patrick Ewing, the former Georgetown and Knicks star, has lost 27 straight Big East regular-season games as his alma mater’s head coach. On Tuesday, the Hoyas again collapsed in the second half, being outscored by 15 points at home in a 66-51 loss against Seton Hall.
Some fans chanted “Fire Ewing” in the waning moments of the game. The Hoyas last season became the first team to go 0-19 in the Big East, and they haven’t won a regular-season league game since March 2021, the same year they won the Big East Tournament.
“My future is my future,” Ewing, 60, said last week. “I’m here to be the head coach at Georgetown until the president or the board decides for me to move on.
“But until that time — a friend of mine sent me a quote today, ‘It’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up.’ So we got knocked down, all we going to do is keep getting up.”
Some Georgetown fans are calling on social media for the school to replace Ewing with Iona Coach Rick Pitino, one of the most successful and controversial coaches in recent history and Ewing’s former coach with the Knicks. Some fans at St. John’s and other schools are also calling for their programs to hire Pitino, one of three coaches to lead five programs to the N.C.A.A. tournament.
A year ago, Saint Peter’s, a tiny school in Jersey City, made a stunning run to the final eight of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
This year, another New Jersey school, Rutgers, is making headlines.
Coach Steve Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights on track for a third straight N.C.A.A. tournament appearance after the program hadn’t been since 1991. For a second straight season, Rutgers beat No. 1 Purdue (this time on the road), and it has earned a reputation as a tough, defensive-oriented team that is extremely hard to beat at home. It is currently ranked No. 21 in the NET rankings used to help determine the tournament field.
New Jersey continues to churn out elite high school talent as well. The state has six players in the mix for the Naismith boys’ high school national player of the year, including players committed to blue bloods like Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina.