The 2017-18 college basketball season has been really, really bad. It started with the dismissal of long-time Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino after a scandal that involved the basketball program overseeing meetings between prospective players and prostitutes. Then Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was wrapped up in the cover-up of sexual assault by players in the men’s basketball program. The latest bombshell — incomplete results of an FBI investigation into corruption in the NCAA — was that over 20 programs are accused of paying over five figures to prospects. The accusations are directed at top programs like Duke, North Carolina and Michigan State — and Arizona’s head coach Sean Miller is accused of discussing a $100,000 payment to projected NBA superstar DeAndre Ayton. Louisville’s punishment for the Pitino scandal resulted in four years of vacated wins, including the 2013 NCAA championship. Throwing aside the legitimate arguments for paying collegiate athletes, the incoming sanctions make one wonder how much of the recent college basketball past will be erased.
But the 2017-18 season hasn’t just been bad because of the myriad off-court issues: On the court, this year has been an aberration of mediocre play across the board. Projections of the NCAA tournament have proven fruitless because every team — no matter how good it appears — is losing to inferior competition.
Last year’s runner-up, Villanova, got off to an incredible start to the year — as always — but has recently stumbled with three losses to unranked Big East opposition. Kansas and Gonzaga, two top 10 teams this year and last, both have more losses already this season than in 2016-17.
Duke — with two NBA-bound big men — has lost three games to unranked teams that are currently slated to miss the NCAA tournament altogether. The defending champion and my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels lost to mid-major Wofford at home as a double-digit favorite. With two games, conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament left in the season, UNC has the same amount of losses as it did all of last year. Both Carolina teams suffered defeats to unranked ACC opponents midweek before facing off against each other this weekend.
And it’s not just the top teams that are performing below par: The Power 5 conference programs competing for a spot in the NCAA tournament are well below previous years’ standards. For example, ESPN currently projects Baylor, which is currently 18-12, to be an 11-seed. Last year’s 11-seeds — which are typically the last at-large bids to be awarded — were 24-9 Rhode Island, 20-13 Kansas State, 19-13 Wake Forest, 21-13 Xavier, 24-9 USC and 20-12 Providence. Unless the Bears defeat tournament-bound (as of right now, who knows what could change next?) Kansas State, they will have at least as many regular season losses as last year’s worst qualifying team.
Baylor beat Oklahoma earlier this week to further advance its tournament resume. The Sooners are their own special case: Another projected top NBA draft pick, Trae Young, led the Sooners to an exceptional start with wins over No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 13 Wichita State. But after a four-game losing streak, a top 10 team earlier in the season has slipped to the edge of tournament relevancy — projected as a 10-seed right now. Oklahoma had spent multiple weeks this season as a top 10 team and are now in danger of missing the NCAA tournament altogether. Arizona State and West Virginia join the list of former top 10 teams that are now outside the top 20 looking in.
These stories are not exceptions: Parity is the name of the game this year. No. 3 Michigan State was down 30 to unranked Northwestern before coming back to win two weekends ago. St. John’s hadn’t won a conference game all season before beating No. 3 Villanova and No. 5 Duke in back-to-back games.
Even mid-major powers like Gonzaga, Wichita State and Saint Mary’s are finding it hard to run their conferences like expected. More secondary and tertiary mid-majors are joining the top tiers of this year’s rankings, as traditional powers across the board are losing week in and week out.
Whether it’s a statement about the spread-out quality of the players and teams or a regression to the mean for everybody, this season of college basketball has been hard to watch for a fan of any team. No game can be taken for granted, and even the top programs can lose to the weakest of opposition. With the conference tournaments upcoming, who knows where the dust will settle when the brackets are being decided.
It should make for an interesting 2018 NCAA tournament: Hopefully, 10 years from now, awfter the scandal dust settles, we’ll find out who won.
Matt Brownsword ’18 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.