A year ago, it was North Carolina and everyone else.
Two years ago, there were four elite teams in a class of their own to begin the season — and the same quartet made the Final Four.
In 2007, it was the defending champion Florida Gators who were considered a lock to repeat with everyone back in the fold.
This year, it’s wide open.
All you had to do was watch the nation’s final unbeaten, Kentucky, go down Tuesday night to a mediocre South Carolina team that lost to Wofford earlier this season.
A South Carolina team that entered the game 11-8 overall, 2-3 in SEC play and without its second-best player, Dominique Archie.
Or see Texas, which held the No. 1 ranking for one week — or more accurately, one day — get swept on the road by Kansas State and UConn.
That’s a Huskies team that was riding a three-game losing streak and was without its coach. Or watch Kansas, the consensus No. 1 team entering the season, go into Knoxville earlier this month and return with a loss against a Tennessee team that had just six scholarship players.
It was the same Vols group that was blasted by 22 out in Los Angeles to USC.
“Right now there are about 20 teams,” Kansas coach Bill Self said shortly after hearing that Kentucky was upset by South Carolina. “I’d like to think we’re one of them, but we can be had. Just like everyone else.”
I’m not sure there are 20, but there are more than three.
Kansas, Kentucky and Texas may be the deepest and most talented teams, but the disparity between The Trio and the rest of the country isn’t quite as significant as many — including myself — considered entering the season.
“I don’t think there’s a team like North Carolina last year or Florida from a couple years ago,” said South Carolina senior guard Devan Downey, who scored 30 in the upset over Kentucky. “There’s no team that’s got everything — guards, bigs and experience.”
Remember, Kentucky, who took over the No. 1 spot just hours prior to the tip-off against South Carolina, had only played three true road games this entire season — against Indiana and Auburn, two teams fortunate to make the postseason of any kind — and also knocking off Florida in Gainesville in a game that came down to the final few minutes.
John Calipari’s team is still young. Sure, he may lay claim to having four of the top 15 picks in June’s NBA draft, but three of them are freshmen.
“John Wall, (Eric) Bledsoe and (DeMarcus) Cousins. Those guys are very talented,” Downey said. “But nothing beats experience.”
They aren’t used to playing in hostile environments. For John Wall, it’s just not the same playing at Waccamaw Academy — as he did a year ago in high school — as it is going into Columbia and facing South Carolina.
Kentucky and Wall are mortal. They ended any and all speculation of matching the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers march to flawlessness, and it’s not even February.
Texas still has three freshmen in its rotation, and while Avery Bradley has made a seamless adjustment, fellow classmates J’Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton have struggled.
So, too, has Kansas’ highly touted freshman Xavier Henry and even sophomore Tyshawn Taylor.
“In the last four or five years, there’s been definitive teams from beginning to end,” Self added. “That’s just not the case this year.”
As the season nears February, it’s more and more apparent that teams such as Syracuse, Villanova, West Virginia, Duke, Michigan State and Purdue may have enough.
Not just to get to Indianapolis, but to reel off six consecutive games.
“There’s just not as much difference between the upper-echelon teams and the next group,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. “This season’s funny.”