Only certainty in hoops this season: Up is down and down is up
At roughly 10:30 p.m. on a cold, rainy night in the Windy City, as the clock wound down on the most unlikely victory in Big East this season -- and one of the most unlikely victories in this wild season -- I gave up on predicting anything about this college basketball season.
Nothing against DePaul: There’s plenty of talent on this often-overlooked team, and the Blue Demons had plenty of close games in their 14 losses.
But to see how thoroughly DePaul -- heretofore 1-8 in the Big East and ranked 169th in the nation on KenPom.com -- destroyed No. 11 Providence and its star, one of the best college basketball players in the country, was a big fat exclamation point on what’s been a nutty, raucous, utterly unpredictable few months of college hoops.
Kris Dunn, who could go as high as the second overall pick in June’s NBA Draft, was pestered and double-teamed to a 5-of-20, 14-point performance in front of nine NBA scouts, his worst shooting performance of the year. DePaul grabbed 48 rebounds, double the number of rebounds Providence grabbed. It was the No. 11 team in the country who was jacking up 3s late to try and catch the Big East also-ran, not the other way around.
Yes, a big part of why Providence came here and lost was because Ben Bentil, the Friars’ sophomore big man who leads the Big East in scoring with more than 20 points per game, injured his ankle in the first half and played only 14 minutes. (The one outcome worse than a loss for Providence would be an extended absence of Bentil from the lineup. On Tuesday night, Providence coach Ed Cooley was clearly concerned, saying Bentil was getting X-rayed and would be examined by a doctor upon returning to Providence.)
But the biggest reason for the monumental upset was this: In a season where there is no top tier in college basketball, at a time where the parity is greater than ever, we might have to realize that these things we used to calls “upsets” should no longer be called “upsets.”
They’re just par for the 2015-16 season’s course.
After the loss, I asked Cooley about the wild nature of this college basketball season. He stopped me at the word “upset.”
“Just because we have a number beside our name, it’s an upset?” Cooley replied. “You gotta come and be prepared to play. That’s why you play the game. They don’t just have a schedule and say who’s gonna win.”
No, they do not. Especially this year.
Just as DePaul and Providence were tipping off, Kentucky, a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country two long months ago, was finishing off its implosion against a struggling Tennessee team. John Calipari’s squad blew a 21-point lead in a loss that might drop the Wildcats out of the AP Poll altogether.
Meanwhile, in Ames, Iowa, No. 13 Iowa State was up 15 points at the impenetrable Hilton Coliseum before losing to West Virginia, a team that had gotten obliterated just days before at unranked Florida. The Cyclones have now beaten current No. 1 Oklahoma and previously top-ranked Kansas in Hilton Coliseum this season, but lost to West Virginia and Baylor. Explain that.
On Monday -- the same day Duke dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2007 -- North Carolina, a team plenty feel is the favorite to win the national title, went on the road and lost to a Louisville team that two days before scored 14 points in the first half of a humiliating home loss to Virginia.
I could go on. And on. And on.
Here are the main truths of the 2015-16 college basketball season: Rankings mean nothing. There is no hierarchy. There are a lot of good teams, and a handful of very good teams, but there are no great teams.
The team with the most talented player in the country, LSU, is very much at risk of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether.
The team that starts four upperclassmen in this age of one-and-dones, Oklahoma, is at the top of the rankings.
Everyone is a contender.
Everyone is vulnerable.
Down is up. Up is down.
There have now been six different teams ranked at the top of the AP Poll this season. The all-time college hoops record for number of teams ranked at the top of the AP Poll in a season? Seven, in the 1982-83 season. That year culminated in perhaps the biggest upset in college basketball history, when Jim Valvano’s North Carolina State beat Houston’s Phi Slama Jama team with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
You can try to explain away all the craziness. Cooley tried on Tuesday night; even though a giant part of the upset was Bentil’s injury, Cooley spoke about a lack of effort, a lack of discipline, a lack of concentration.
It’s more than that, though.
The best explanation I can come up with for this season? We have a season where there are lots of elite seniors, and the teams that have those elite seniors -- teams like Oklahoma and Iowa State, Virginia and Iowa, Villanova and Oregon State -- are not the teams that typically recruit one-and-dones. And this year’s one-and-done group -- led by Ben Simmons in Baton Rouge -- has, instead of simply choosing the Dukes and the Kentuckys and the North Carolinas, spread itself thin to the non-bluebloods: Elite players going to Marquette and California, to LSU and Mississippi State.
Maybe we can explain it.
Maybe we can’t.
All of this has added up to a season where big-time upsets are an everyday occurrence, and where the NCAA Tournament -- which last season had three 1-seeds in the Final Four -- might be among the most unpredictable tournaments in recent memory.
Because just like those rankings in the AP Poll don’t mean a thing, neither will the seedings in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, the bad teams aren’t that bad, the great teams aren’t actually great, and anyone can win on any given night. So stop trying to predict. Stop acting shocked at an upset. “I don’t know” should be the most uttered answer this college basketball season.
Because more than ever, we really don’t.