Houston losing at Iowa State in the first week of conference play shouldn’t feel like a seismic result.
But this college basketball season? It meant plenty.
The Cyclones’ 57-53 win on Jan. 9 over then-No. 2 Houston left no undefeated teams in the country. It also was the start of one of the wilder weeks in recent college hoops history. Hours later, top-ranked Purdue lost on the road to Nebraska. The next night, No. 3 Kansas and No. 5 Tennessee both lost, too, marking the first time in history that four top-five teams lost in a 48-hour stretch. By week’s end, eight of the nation’s top-10 teams had lost — all to unranked teams.
But that wasn’t just one strange week.
It’s become par for the course in this topsy-turvy college basketball season.
Ken Pomeroy — the creator of advanced statistics site KenPom.com — analyzes the college basketball landscape for a living. And his takeaway, watching this season so far?
“It’s probably, compared to the last 25 years, maybe a little more wide open than average,” Pomeroy says. “Last year seemed like it was the pinnacle of parity, and I think we’re not quite as wide open as we were last year.”
It would be hard to top last season’s parity … but the fact that it’s anywhere close is still saying something. Remember: A record 54 teams cycled through the AP Top 25 last season, foreshadowing one of the most unpredictable NCAA Tournaments we’ve ever seen. For the second time in history, a No. 1 seed — in this case, Purdue, led by 7-foot-4 National Player of the Year Zach Edey — lost to a No. 16 seed (Fairleigh Dickinson). All four No. 1 seeds were eliminated before the Final Four for only the third time ever … and none even made the Elite Eight, a first. Three programs — Miami, San Diego State, and Florida Atlantic — instead made their first Final Four appearances, and the four finalists’ combined seeds were the second-highest on record.
As for this season? Already, 47 different teams have appeared in the AP poll, with over a month until Selection Sunday. And perhaps most notably, top-10 teams are just 32-33 on the road against unranked foes, easily the worst win percentage in those scenarios in the modern era. (That dates back to the 1984-85 season, when the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams.) Marquette, Arizona and Kansas — the No. 4, 5, and 6 teams in this week’s poll — have lost three such games each. And after last weekend, when Illinois and Tennessee became the latest top-10 teams to join the trend, those 33 losses already stand as the most ever in a season in those situations.
“It’s happening,” Kentucky coach John Calipari says, “to everyone.”
The better question is, why?
There’s no one clear answer, but industry insiders point to a few contributing factors.
The quality of coaching is one, unquantifiable as it is. Multiple Hall of Famers have retired in recent seasons — icons like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, and Jay Wright — and their former programs haven’t all had seamless transitions. Hubert Davis took North Carolina to the national title game in his first season … before missing the field altogether in his second, despite being preseason No. 1. Kyle Neptune, Wright’s successor at Villanova, is just 30-28 in two years and is in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.
“There’s no dominant teams, because if you look at the dominant, blue-blood programs, there’s really only one of them that has a high-level coach right now. It’s Kansas,” says one high-major coach, granted anonymity so he could speak freely about his colleagues. “That’s why there’s so much parity — because there’s so much room for everybody else, like us, that doesn’t have near the resources.”
Two recent rules changes have also upended the sport: 1) The passage of the one-time transfer rule in April 2021, allowing more player movement than ever before; and 2) the lingering extra COVID-19 year of eligibility that players were granted after the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled.
“With the COVID year, there are older players — more experienced players — out there, and then with the freedom of movement in terms of the transfer rules, that talent is more efficiently dispersed among teams,” Pomeroy says. “So a person who would have been the seventh man on a top-10 team is now the fourth man on the 25th-best team or whatever, so that kind of bunches things up.”
Data supports that sentiment, too. Basketball statistician Will Warren recently addressed the dispersion of talent on his Substack — statsbywill — by analyzing Pomeroy’s rankings for the last 27 years. Warren wanted to see if the best teams in the nation every season — both the truly elite, like the top five, and the broader 50 best — are, on average, getting more or less dominant. Are the days of teams entering the NCAA Tournament with only one or two losses (or none, like 2021 Gonzaga) over?
His findings were fascinating … and basically identical for both groups. Warren found that KenPom’s top-5 teams on Feb. 1 — in order: Houston, Purdue, Connecticut, Arizona, and Auburn — had just the 17th-best adjusted efficiency margin of the last 27 years. (Last year’s top 5 ranked 25th out of 27, and 2022’s group — the first season after those rule changes — was 16th.) That suggests there are fewer truly elite teams today, but rather a small grouping of very good ones. On the flip side, Warren discovered that KenPom’s teams ranked 26-50 this season are the seventh-strongest in adjusted efficiency margin in the last 27 years. What that means is that the teams barely outside the AP poll are, on average, better and more capable than usual.
That’s a pretty accurate picture of modern-day college basketball, no? Teams at the top aren’t as overwhelming as they used to be, and teams in the middle are more competitive than ever.
As one NBA scout, who was granted anonymity in exchange for his candor, put it: “All these teams are susceptible — and we see it.”
Not long ago, teams like Kentucky and Duke were dominating with star one-and-done freshmen. But that’s not happening as often anymore.
Last season, for the first time since 1998, no Final Four team started a single true freshman. (Connecticut’s Alex Karaban, a redshirt freshman, was the closest thing.) It’s the same trend this season. Seven of KenPom’s top-10 teams on Feb. 1 were amongst the 100 oldest squads in the nation — and Houston, at 102nd, barely missed the cut. Of the 50 starters on those 10 teams, only two are freshmen: Connecticut’s Stephon Castle, and North Carolina’s Elliot Cadeau. (And both guards, in addition to being top-12 recruits, are already 19 years old.) On the flip side, of the 10 youngest high-major teams in America, only Duke — which starts one senior, three sophomores, and one freshman — is expected to make the NCAA Tournament.
“Age is king,” says the NBA scout.
The additional COVID year has made college basketball as old as ever. North Carolina, for example, starts a 25- and a 23-year-old. Last season, Alabama coach Nate Oats led his team to the No. 1 overall seed by starting three freshmen; he now starts four seniors. “Guys who are 22, 23, 24 years old,” Oats says, “can probably produce in the college game at the same level as some of these McDonald’s All-Americans who are freshmen.”
With players staying in college longer than ever — and the NCAA suspending restrictions on two-time transfers after being sued in federal court in December — acquiring experienced talent is paramount. Oats points to three of the SEC’s leading scorers as proof. Mark Sears, Alabama’s point guard, is in his second season in Tuscaloosa after transferring from Ohio. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht — arguably the best transfer in America this season — came to Knoxville by way of junior college and two seasons at Northern Colorado. Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves, 23, played three seasons at Illinois State.
“This is not controversial stuff,” Oats says. “Four of our five starters came in as transfers. So we’re able to compete with some of the traditional blue bloods who recruited a bunch of McDonald’s All-Americans, because transfers can compete at a pretty similar level, because they’re older and more physically mature.”
The NBA scout compares the age discrepancy in college basketball to the grassroots level.
“If you’ve got a guy who is 14, and he’s usually playing U14 or U15, you’re like, OK, that’s a good level for him,” the scout says. “Then you play him up to U17, and, man, you get your a– kicked. This is the equivalent of if you’re U14 playing up against, like, U19, U20.”
That also doesn’t factor in the quality of freshmen in today’s game. Per basketball statistician Evan Miyakawa, only 14 of the top-200 players in his individual efficiency rankings are freshmen, the fewest of at least the last decade. (Comparatively, 112 of his top 200 are seniors.)
That also tracks with the industry-wide belief that the 2023 recruiting class was relatively weak. On his latest big board from December, The Athletic NBA Draft expert Sam Vecenie only had 14 freshmen listed amongst his top 50 players. That number may be even lower now. The NBA scout, who has seen many of these top freshmen in person, uses the old Dennis Green quote to describe his perception of the 2023 recruiting class: “They are who we thought they are.”
There are, of course, exceptions to that rule. Cadeau at North Carolina, for instance, has propelled the Tar Heels to first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard — who was ranked No. 79 in the 2023 class — is a projected one-and-done talent who leads the nation in 3-point shooting. Look around the country, and there are still impactful first-year players.
Just fewer of them than the sport has had in quite some time.
Many folks involved with college basketball are curious when — or if — that pendulum will swing back towards a youth movement. There’s some optimism it could happen after next season, once the extra COVID year is fully cycled out. But for now, age is a decided advantage for those teams who have it.
“Everybody’s recruiting top-50 guys,” says Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “Well, they’re still 18, and they’re going against 23-year-olds.”
Because of all these factors, the line between the haves and have-nots in college basketball has never been blurrier.
And as this season has gone on, more and more one-time underdogs have realized that fact.
“When a couple of (top-10) teams win or lose early, it gives belief to everybody else. So then you feel like it’s supposed to happen, as a team, as opposed to maybe a couple of years ago when maybe it’s not happening as much,” says Duke coach Jon Scheyer. “Everybody in the country feels (that) any game they play, they can win — because those kinds of games have happened through the whole season.”
But will that season-long parity extend to March? Those in the college basketball space are split. On one hand, the data speaks for itself. On the other, though, a handful of teams at the top have started to separate themselves. This week marked the fifth straight that Purdue and Connecticut, both 22-2, were ranked first and second in the AP poll. Houston (21-3), despite some offensive question marks, has ranked No. 1 in most computer rankings for months and has put together one of the best adjusted-efficiency margins in recent history. Those three teams will almost certainly be the top three overall seeds when the selection committee reveals its late-season top 16 on Saturday. There’s also a group of very-good-but-perhaps-flawed teams — UNC, Tennessee, Kansas, Arizona, Marquette — right behind them. For all the talk of a lack of a dominant team last season, there was one hiding in plain sight: UConn, which crushed its NCAA Tournament opponents in historic fashion and might be poised to go back-to-back.
We can’t know for sure until March Madness. But all the signs point to this year’s postseason more than living up to that moniker.
— The Athletic’s Kyle Tucker, Brian Hamilton and CJ Moore contributed to this story.
(Illustration by Sean Reilly / The Athletic;Photos: Michael Reaves and Andy Lyons / Getty Images)