College basketball’s surprise start leaves March Madness wide open

Last Monday night, Georgia poked fun at the national championship game and wiped out TCU by 58 points.

That was the annual passing of the college athletics torch, transitioning from soccer to basketball. And five days later, college basketball showed just how different it is from football.

Of the Associated Press top 25, 11 teams lost on Saturday. 13 different teams have already placed in the top 5. Out of all six major conferences, the first-place team with the largest margin of any team is Clemson of the ACC, who was ranked 11th in the league. In many ways, for the first two months of the season, the overarching storyline was one of parity. The balance that exists in sport.

North Carolina, returning from a trip to the national championship game and with four starters, was expected to be elite. But it has yet to find its form. Ditto for the overwhelming five-loss Duke, who fell to Clemson on Saturday. Kentucky would not make the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, despite Saturday’s rousing win at No. 5 Tennessee. Gonzaga isn’t the same Gonzaga it has been for the past several years, struggling to displace teams from the middle of the mediocre West Coast Conference. Top-10 schools Connecticut and Arizona looked like Final Four contenders before the league began, and both have struggled to find themselves in the middle of their conferences since.

Meanwhile, yes, Alabama and esteemed freshman Brandon Miller have been impressive, especially after overpowering Arkansas on the road and embarrassing LSU at home last week. Houston, the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 for offensive and defensive efficiency, will have a tough time in March. Kansas, UCLA and Purdue are deep, experienced and have one seed skills and resumes.

Houston's Marcus Sasser during a game against South Florida on January 11, 2023.
Houston’s Marcus Sasser during a game against South Florida on January 11, 2023.
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North Carolina's Armando Bacot (c.) is swarmed by Pittsburgh defenders during a game December 30, 2022.
North Carolina’s Armando Bacot (c.) is swarmed by Pittsburgh defenders during a game December 30, 2022.
AP

But right now there isn’t a team that would be surprised if they were eliminated in the first weekend. No clear Final Four – let alone national championship – favorite. Unlike college football, where it became clear early on that Georgia was the obvious choice to be last team, basketball started out unpredictably. It’s wide open, which is a good thing. There would be a wild march.

Good knights

Success on the pitch is now spreading down the recruiting lane for Steve Pikiell and Rutgers. It’s one thing to develop and attract underappreciated prospects, as Pikiell has done over the past few years. But now the Scarlet Knights are becoming a game for big talent. On Sunday afternoon, they received a verbal commitment from Airious Bailey, the top-10 wing heavily recruited by Kentucky and Auburn, among others. He follows top 40 winger Gavin Griffiths, the jewel of the 2023 class.

Rutgers’ current team is an interesting mix: top 50 big man Cliff Omoruyi and three-star guards Paul Mulcahy, Cam Spencer and Caleb McConnell. It’s just half a game behind Purdue at the top of the Big Ten and is looking like a designated tournament team for the third straight season, which would be a first for Rutgers. Apparently recruits are taking notice as Pikiell takes this program to new heights. He has already achieved more than was reasonably expected.

The son gets up too

The best coaching by a Pitino this season isn’t happening in New Rochelle. It’s way out in New Mexico. Here, Rick’s son Richard has the Lobos on the loose in the NCAA tournament with a 4-0 record in Quad 1 and 2 games and victories over Saint Mary’s, No. 23 San Diego State and SMU. Meanwhile, his father’s team, Iona, is struggling with injury problems and has lost two of its last three games in the MAAC. Richard has put New Mexico on track for his first 20-win season since 2013-14 in his sophomore year there after quitting as head coach at FIU and Minnesota. Junior guard Jamal Mashburn Jr., the son of the former Kentucky star Rick once coached, ended this successful season averaging 18.2 points per game and a career-best 39 percent from 3-point range.

Jamal Mashburn Jr. (left) leads the way for New Mexico.
Jamal Mashburn Jr. (left) leads the way for New Mexico.
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game of the week

No. 7 UCLA at No. 9 Arizona, Saturday, 2 p.m

It will be two championship-quality teams going in opposite directions. UCLA has won 12 straight games — 10 in double digits — and sits on the Pac-12. Arizona has lost two of its last three, and both losses have been one-sided results. But the Wildcats will be at home, where they are 9-1. Arizona’s Kerr Kriisa’s point guard matchup against UCLA’s Tyger Campbell is reason enough to get in the mood.

sweet 16

A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA tournament (listed in order):

1. Kansas, Alabama, Purdue, Houston

2. UCLA, Texas, Arizona, Gonzaga

3. Xavier, State of Iowa, TCU, Virginia

4. Connecticut, State of Kansas, Miami, Marquette

stock clock

High

Max Abmas

remember him? The dynamic little guard who led Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 with excitement in Ohio State and Florida two years ago? Well, he’s back and so are the Golden Eagles, who are 6-0 at the top of the Summit League, led by the 6-foot Texas guard, who is averaging over 22 points a game. Abmas got some help from Connor Vanover, a 7ft 5 Arkansas man who can shoot from deep, and fellow guard Issac McBride, giving Oral Roberts the scoring depth he needed.

Clemson

Only one ACC team remains undefeated in conference play, and it’s none from Tobacco Road. It’s not Virginia either. It is surprising that Clemson was voted 11th in the league. Which comes from a dismal 17-16 season. Which lost three of its top five scorers from that team. More than impressive. It might be time to rank Clemson after it defeated Duke for its fourth Quad 1 win of the season on Saturday afternoon.

down

Villanova

A step backwards was inevitable. relapse was to be expected. You don’t lose a Hall of Famer coach like Jay Wright and his top three players Justin Moore, Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, and you don’t lose anything either. The lack of a true difference-making point guard, a staple under Wright, was conspicuous. Still, it’s staggering to see how far Villanova has fallen this season under new manager Kype Neptune, having lost five of their last six games. A bid for an NCAA tournament at this point is almost dependent on the Wildcats winning the Big East tournament. They are 0-5 in Quad 1 games, have a NET ranking of 96 and are tied with Butler and DePaul in the loss column.

Connecticut

A few weeks ago, the Huskies looked like heavy favorites for the coveted East Region No. 1, to be played at Madison Square Garden. But after four losses in five games, UConn is falling fast. The first three setbacks at Xavier, Providence and Marquette were understandable. Even expected. It wasn’t Sunday. Coach Dan Hurley’s team were a 14-point favorite over St. John’s and were overwhelmed by 11. It’s closer to the seventh than the Big East. After beating Oklahoma State, Alabama, Oregon and Iowa State in the non-conference, regression has arrived in Storrs.

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