UNC’s win vs. Maryland proof no standout in race for title
Remember how predictable last season seemed in college basketball?
Not long before that season started, I wrote a column saying Kentucky had a shot — a real, honest-to-goodness shot — at 40-0. Sure enough, the Wildcats didn’t lose their first game until the Final Four, going 38-1. Going into the season, we knew Wisconsin was returning two future first-round picks, Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, from a Final Four team, and we knew Duke had Coach K’s best recruiting class. Sure enough, those two teams ended up playing for the title.
In fact, three of the four teams ranked 1-4 in last year’s preseason AP Poll ended up in the Final Four. The fourth was Arizona — which lost to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight.
Pass on the predictability and prepare for pandemonium.
On Tuesday night, two really, really good basketball teams — No. 2 Maryland and No. 9 North Carolina — played a really, really fun and really, really fast basketball game. UNC won 89-81 but you couldn’t really call it an upset. One reason it wasn’t an upset? UNC was at home. Another reason was because Vegas had UNC as a solid favorite. And another reason was because just two weeks ago UNC was ranked No. 1 in the country.
But the real reason it wasn’t an upset was a reason we’ll hear a lot all through what I expect to be a wild college basketball season:
This season, there are a ton of really, really good basketball teams — but there isn’t a single team that stands out as truly great, at least not this early in the season.
The way I see it, only one team has a well of untapped greatness that could see it separate itself from the really, really good pack, and that’s Kentucky. Even though I thought this young, perimeter-oriented team would have a learning curve that would bring some early season struggles, I can’t shake the image of Kentucky manhandling Duke in its third game of the year. (An argument could be made that a full strength Kansas, now that Cheick Diallo is eligible, could reach that level once Brannen Greene returns from suspension.)
But if you’re picking who’ll cut down nets in Houston come April, I’d think your best bet is for one of those teams that looks really, really good, but not necessarily great.
You know why Maryland and UNC ought to both be considered national title contenders? Because they are deep teams with eight- or nine-man rotations where there’s little falloff when you go to the bench. And because they are experienced; UNC has six upperclassmen in its rotation, while Maryland has four. And because on Tuesday night, when you looked at one of the premier nonconference matchups of the college basketball season, you saw exactly one player projected to go in the NBA lottery — Maryland freshman Diamond Stone, who was a non-factor Tuesday.
In other words, these teams are really, really good — but I’m not sure too many people would mistake them for great.
Tuesday’s matchup showed how these two teams could win it all while also exposing some of their flaws. Both teams shot the lights out, going a combined 23 of 39 (59 percent!) in 3-point attempts. Yet as crisp as the game was played in shot-making, it was painfully sloppy in ball-handling. Maryland’s sophomore point guard Melo Trimble played out of his mind. He scored a game-high 23 points with a career-high 12 assists — but he also had eight of Maryland’s (yikes) 22 turnovers. Too often, when Maryland needed a bucket, Trimble was the only one who wanted to step up.
UNC senior point guard Marcus Paige, in his first game back from a broken hand suffered in the preseason, played his brains out, too (five assists and 20 points on 4-of-5 shooting from 3). As coach Roy Williams told reporters afterward, “I like my team. I like it a lot better with No. 5 out there.” That’s the flaw with North Carolina: Its heart and soul is a guy whose college career has been riddled with nagging injuries.
Both of these teams are flawed. That was my takeaway from Tuesday night.
Then again, many future national championship teams are flawed. Titles aren’t always won by the best teams. I’d argue the last time the actual best team in the country won the tournament was when Louisville won it all three years ago. Titles are won by the teams who put themselves in a position to win six games in a row in March and April.
This year, I think it’ll be by one of these really, really good — but also flawed — basketball teams.
A quick look at the rankings shows me 13 teams who, at this point of the season, qualify as really, really good, with that combination of depth, talent and experience that you need to win it all: Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan State, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Duke, Villanova, UNC, Virginia, Purdue, Xavier, Gonzaga. It’s at No. 14 Syracuse where I draw the line. (It wouldn’t surprise me if lower-ranked teams like Texas A&M, California, UConn or Indiana work themselves into that tier eventually.)
A big part of the reason for this parity at the top of college hoops is because this season’s best one-and-done type players aren’t concentrated at a blue-blood school like Kentucky or Duke or Kansas. Projected lottery picks decided to go to schools like LSU (Ben Simmons), Marquette (Henry Ellenson), Mississippi State (Malik Newman) and California (Jaylen Brown). But what helps the non-blue bloods hurts the blue bloods, and so Duke’s and Kentucky’s recruiting classes — while still a head above the rest — aren’t the world-beaters they’ve been the past couple years.
I’m good with that. It was thrilling to watch Kentucky’s chase for perfection last season, and to know that there were really only two teams – Duke and Wisconsin — who seemed capable of stopping them. But honestly, I’d prefer a more wide-open season like this one.
Nothing will be predictable at the top of college basketball this season. There isn’t one (or two or three) elite teams. But there are a whole bunch of really, really good ones who will more than make up for it.
- California Golden Bears
- Duke Blue Devils
- Gonzaga Bulldogs
- Indiana Hoosiers
- Iowa State Cyclones
- Kansas Jayhawks
- Kansas State Wildcats
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Marcus Paige
- Maryland Terrapins
- Michigan State Spartans
- North Carolina Tar Heels
- Oklahoma Sooners
- Purdue Boilermakers
- Texas A&M Aggies
- Villanova Wildcats
- Virginia Cavaliers
- Xavier Musketeers