From Jan. 27 to Feb. 10, Texas Tech men’s basketball coach Bobby Knight, the winningest coach in the history of men’s Division I college basketball, suffered his first five-game losing streak since the 1971-72 season, his first year as a head coach at Indiana. From Feb. 1 to Feb. 11, Knight’s most famous and successful protege, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, went on his first four-game losing streak in 11 years. Though the two coaching legends have six championships between them, neither has a ranked team as of last week. In fact, of the five winningest active coaches — Knight, Lute Olson, Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, and Mike Krzyzewski — only one, Olson, had a team ranked in the top 25 last week. How can that be? It’s the parity, baby.
If you wait for March Madness before you start watching college basketball, you’re missing three months of the best, most thrilling sports in America. The parity and level of play in Division I college basketball are unparalleled in the game’s history. There are more outstanding coaches, more outstanding players, and there is more intense competition than at any time since the game of basketball was invented.
Duke’s 2006 recruiting class was ranked No. 2 in the country. Even after losing three players to the NBA last season, Duke should have been a contender this year. But Duke is struggling to get back into the top 25 and to get a decent seed in the tournament. Another losing streak and it is possible, however unlikely, that Duke could miss the tournament all together. Meanwhile, as of last week, Air Force — Air Force!! â€” was the No. 17 team in the country. No. 13? Butler. No. 10? Washington State. No. 6? Texas A&M.
Sure, traditional powers North Carolina, UCLA, and Kansas are in the top ten. But to an unprecedented extent, the second-tier teams have shrunk the gap with the top tier. On any given night, just about anything can happen. Just ask No. 14 Georgetown. In the third game of the season, Old Dominion beat then-No. 8 Georgetown at the old, on-campus gym the Hoyas use only when they play a cupcake team they expect to clobber. And it wasn’t even close: 75-62. A few weeks ago Ohio State, the only top five team yet to lose to an unranked opponent, squeaked out a one-shot win against unranked Michigan State in the final seconds while then-No. 3 UCLA lost by seven to unranked Stanford. Earlier in the season Kansas lost to Oral Roberts by seven points. Oral Roberts! Four games later, Kansas beat No. 1 Florida by two points in what is widely considered one of the best two games of the season.
BASKETBALL HAS ATTRACTED SO MANY of the country’s best young athletes that it’s a wonder there are any college baseball teams left. And these athletes are not only talented, they’re hungry. Everybody thinks he’s got a chance to get to the Final Four. That creates tournament pressure starting from the first game of the season. Knowing that a single win or loss, no matter the opponent, can make or break a team’s chances of getting into the tournament, or profoundly affect its seeding, the players and coaches have turned nearly every game into an important — and entertaining — contest.
The thrill of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament is that you never know what’s going to happen. With the exception of a sixteen seed beating a No. 1 seed, every game is up for grabs, and a lot of sportswriters think that with the level of parity in the game today it’s only a matter of time before the ultimate upset happens and a top seed loses to a bottom seed. But that same level of parity has turned the regular season into a roller coaster ride nearly as thrilling as the tournament itself.
Imagine Army or Navy playing in one of the top football bowl games in January. Preposterous. College football is dominated by a handful of elite programs that might as well be playing in the NFL for all they have in common with the second-tier Division I schools. Not so in college hoops today. It’s not that a team like Penn State (10-14) has much of a chance against a team like No. 2 Ohio State (23-3) — but it does have a chance. Last Wednesday, Penn State came from 24 down to lose by two at the buzzer to Ohio State.
THE PARITY IN COLLEGE HOOPS is such that of the past 10 national champions, five are unranked this season (Connecticut won in 1999 and 2004) and only the last two — North Carolina and Florida — are in the top five. But forget national champions. You don’t even have to watch contending teams to see some great games. In January, Pennsylvania went on a five-game win streak that included three games decided by a single shot — one, against rival La Salle, won on a three-pointer fired at literally the last second.
College basketball has always been exciting in March. The tournament forces the best teams to compete against each other in a do-or-die scenario, which elevates the level of play by bringing the maximum amount of competitiveness out of each player. But now we’ve entered a new era in which the tournament has attracted, even helped breed, legions of excellent athletes hungry to have their own shining Final Four moment — and they can’t all play for North Carolina or Kentucky. So they end up at places like Texas, Ohio State, Washington State and Butler. And they are playing to win all season long.
If you’ve gotten into the habit of watching college basketball only in March, it’s time to rethink your winter sports viewing habits. College hoops has become a full-season adventure. If you’re missing it now, well, you’re missing it.
Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader and editor of the satire blog gunsbutter.com.