When was the last time Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Kentucky all failed to make the NCAA men’s basketball AP Top 25 poll during the same week?
A very long time ago. Over 60 years, to be exact.
Just like almost everything this past year, college basketball has been different. College basketball fans are used to watching traditional powerhouse programs dominate their conferences and make deep March Madness runs, but it is becoming increasingly likely that none of them will make the NCAA tournament this March.
Instead, this year, underdogs like Baylor University and the University of Houston have consistently been ranked in the top 10. This unforeseen paradox begs the question: What happened in college basketball this year?
Because of the spread of COVID-19 throughout the country, the NCAA delayed the beginning of the college basketball season by two weeks, with practices not permitted to begin until Oct. 14. While two weeks may not seem significant, younger players need as much time on the court as possible to learn their coach’s offensive and defensive systems and develop chemistry with their teammates.
Additionally, because of lockdown measures, teams were not allowed to plan international trips during the summer or play exhibition games. These are strategies used by top programs to help the team bond before the grueling season begins. COVID-19 cases among college athletes have forced teams to quarantine and postpone their games during the middle of the season for weeks at a time, disrupting momentum and forcing players out of shape.
All of these challenges would be detrimental to any college basketball team. However, they are especially painful to young teams. What normally makes Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina so talented is their ability to recruit top high school players to play before declaring for the NBA draft. For the past 13 years, either Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina has had the top ranked recruiting class in the nation. During a normal season, this abundance of young talent is sufficient to make a deep NCAA tournament run without significant veteran presence.
This season, North Carolina is ranked No. 323, Kentucky No. 341 and Duke No. 343 in team experience in the country. While these low rankings wouldn’t normally be a cause for concern, the COVID-19 restrictions have especially devastated these young teams. While Duke’s starting five normally consists of three freshmen and two sophomores, Baylor, currently ranked second in the nation, stars three juniors and two seniors. Houston, one of the biggest surprises of the season being ranked in the top 10 in the nation for five consecutive weeks, has a starting five consisting of two seniors, two juniors and just one sophomore.
Compared to the “one and done” factories of Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, these teams have multiple years of experience playing together. They do not have to rely on a high number of practices to develop the necessary experience and chemistry to be successful in the NCAA.
The same can be said for several other lesser-known programs. Loyola University Chicago is currently ranked No. 21 in the nation. The Ramblers, whose starting lineup consists of four seniors and one sophomore, have incredible experience and chemistry to overcome the COVID-19 struggles. Even Drake University, which has made the NCAA Tournament just once in the past 49 years, cracked the AP Top 25 at one point this season. Drake’s experienced starting five players with an average of three years played has made them successful.
As you begin to fill out your NCAA Tournament brackets this March, do not expect the young, traditional favorites to make it very far. Instead, look for teams with older players, such as Baylor and Houston, who have all of the necessary chemistry and experience to make deep runs into the Final Four and beyond.
While Duke and Kentucky will continue to send their freshmen to the NBA draft, expect to see an unforeseen veteran team cutting down the nets at the national championship game this year.
Brendan Quill is a first year in the McDonough School of Business. Today in the NCAA appears online every other week.