Season of mediocrity, UNC on rise, Kemba in slump, more thoughts

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Or maybe we should just cut to the chase and call this picture what it is: When Parity Met Mediocrity.

If ever there was a season when we should be grateful that college hoops crowns its champion in a most un-football-like fashion, this is it. You can't even say that up is down and down is up anymore. There are no directions. Last weekend's action summed up the state of the game in a neat, 48-hour window. Thirteen of the Top 25 teams lost. Half of the top 10 went down. And that doesn't include top-ranked Ohio State, which nearly lost at Northwestern even though the Wildcats were missing their best player, John Shurna, who was out with a concussion.

Last week, the Top 25 had a record of 22-20. That's right, the very best teams in the country were two games over .500. It's the very definition of mass mediocrity.

Do we blame the voters (whoever they are; cough cough) for being so wrong? Or do we blame the teams? A quick glance at The Associated Press preseason rankings reads like a victim's unit: Michigan State (2), Kansas State (3), Gonzaga (11), Illinois (13), Butler (16), Baylor (17), Memphis (19), Temple (21), Virginia Tech (22), Tennessee (24). Do you know what all of these teams have in common? None of them are ranked in this week's poll. Maybe we should make a movie about the AP voters and call it The Blind Side.

All of which begs two questions: Why is this happening? And is it good for the sport?

The first answer is pretty simple. What we're seeing is the confluence of trends that have been burgeoning for more than decade. The most obvious is the stream of underclassman defections to the NBA. That began with that watershed moment in 1995 when Kevin Garnett went from high school senior to the fifth pick in the draft.

The second trend is the proliferation of national television coverage. I mean, even the Mountain West Conference has its own network now. Players have always had opportunities at lots of schools. Now they know that wherever they go, they're going to be on national TV. That doesn't just have an effect on recruiting, either. If a guy doesn't start as a college freshman, he can simply transfer to his second choice. Happens all the time.

Finally, the development of international basketball has provided lesser-known schools with a whole new talent pool to exploit. Saint Mary's has built itself into a mid-major powerhouse by setting up a pipeline to Australia alone.

When experience is in such short supply, it becomes that much more valuable. Northern Iowa didn't beat Kansas in last year's NCAA tournament because its players were better. UNI won because its players were older. Ditto for West Virginia and Kentucky. The top of college basketball is not nearly as high as it used to be, and the bottom is not nearly as low. It's only natural that everyone would meet in the middle.

This season, we're also witnessing an unusual circumstance in which three power conferences are in the throes of major down cycles. The Pac-10 sent two teams to the NCAA tournament last year, and the league is only marginally better now. The SEC West is so bad that not a single team is currently ranked in the top 80 of the RPI. And as I've said before, in two-plus decades of covering this sport I have never seen the ACC this lousy. North Carolina re-appeared in this week's poll, but Florida State dropped out -- so the conference still hasn't had more than two teams ranked since the preseason poll. Most of the time Duke has been the only ranked team from the ACC. (Then again, maybe we should stop looking at the polls to figure out who's good.)

As a result, the transitive property no longer applies. Texas can lose at USC and then win at Kansas. Tennessee, which should be this movie's poster child, can win at Villanova and Pitt (at the Consol Energy Center) and lose to College of Charleston and Charlotte. Louisville loses at home to Drexel but beats UConn on the road. Providence loses to LaSalle but beats Louisville and Villanova. Auburn loses to Samford, Campbell and Presbyterian, but it beats Florida State, which later beats Duke. What, you didn't know Presbyterian was better than Duke? And on Sunday, St. John's (which lost to Fordham) blew out Duke.

As for whether all of this is good for the sport, the answer is in the eye of the answerer. On the one hand, I think it's great when there are so many surprises. It makes every fan feel like his or her team has a chance. I'm only glad that the NCAA didn't expand the tournament to 96 teams. There's only so much mediocrity we can watch.

On the other hand, fans like to see dynastic greatness. They're not getting it this season. Duke had a chance to be great if Kyrie Irving didn't get hurt. As good as Ohio State has been, it has squeaked by mediocre teams like Michigan, Iowa, Penn State and Northwestern. If you think the Buckeyes are going undefeated, you haven't been following the plot.

Indeed, the only thing certain about this college basketball season is its uncertainty. If you're looking for a neat and tidy order of things, you're watching the wrong movie. Otherwise, grab some popcorn and a box of Sno Caps, because there's a very interesting flick playing in this theater, and I know just what to call it.


• If it's possible that a single moment can turn around a team's season, then North Carolina experienced it with 6.6 seconds remaining in its game at Miami last Wednesday night when Harrison Barnes stroked a three-pointer from the right corner to give the Tar Heels a 74-71 victory. Barnes followed that up by scoring a season-high 25 points in North Carolina's 20-point beatdown of N.C. State. This kid's ability has never been in question. All he's missing is confidence.

• It's official: Kemba Walker is in a bad slump. Walker shot 7-for-23 from the floor during Saturday's loss at home to Louisville. He has earned his green light, but no player should jack up 23 shots when they're not going in. Over his last four games, Walker has made 17 of his 74 attempts, or 23 percent. That hasn't just made Walker a clear No. 2 behind The Jimmer for POY. It has made UConn more beatable.

• Speaking of the Louisville game, I honestly don't know that I've ever seen Rick Pitino do a better job. This team was not expected to do much even before it lost three key players to injuries. Oh, and I think it's high time America started reading more about Peyton Siva, don't you? Louisville's sophomore point guard had 19 points and seven assists in the double-overtime win, and on the season he is ranked first in the Big East in steals and fifth in assists.

• I have met Rutgers coach Mike Rice, but I can't say I know him well. He is obviously an excellent basketball coach and was a smart hire. For all I know, when he is at practice or having dinner with his players, he is a soft-spoken, demure wallflower. But I have to say his histrionics on the sidelines are very, very troubling. There has to be a better way for him to motivate his guys, influence the referees and let everybody know what he is thinking.

• San Diego State sophomore forward Kawhi Leonard was sick as a dog the day of the BYU game last Wednesday. He even had to get an IV just 45 minutes before tipoff. All he did was go for 22 points and 15 rebounds in the loss. Leonard is an incredible rebounder for his size. To me, he looks like a more-skilled version of Ben Wallace.

• Has there been a more disappointing player in the country this season than Kansas State's Curtis Kelly? The 6-foot-8 senior forward was the second-biggest reason (behind Jacob Pullen) why the Wildcats were a preseason top-five pick. Not only has he had two different suspensions -- one implemented by Frank Martin, the other by the NCAA -- but Kelly's numbers are also way down across the board. He's averaging just 9.7 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shooting 52.6 percent from the floor. Last season he averaged 11.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and shot 56.5 percent. Kelly may have hit rock bottom Saturday night against Kansas, when Martin benched him after he missed three shots during his 10 minutes on the floor. Asked after the game why Kelly didn't return, Martin replied (as only he can), "Next question."

• Duke's loss to St. John's exposed the fact that Kyle Singler is very quietly having a disappointing season. If you'll recall, Singler was a near-consensus choice for preseason player of the year. (He was the leading vote-getter on the AP's preseason All-America team.) He has been far from terrible, but he hasn't been as dominant as I expected he would -- or as dominant as his team needs him to be. He was 1-for-7 from three-point range during the loss to St. John's, and on the season his three-point shooting is down slightly from last season (38.1 percent, down from 39.9). Singler has been good, but the Blue Devils need for him to be great if they're going to make a run at another championship.

• It has been a long time since I saw a team lose in as devastating a fashion as Gonzaga did last week. The Zags were at home, playing their league rival, Saint Mary's, desperately in need of a win to bolster their NCAA credentials ... and they go down on a last-second bucket by Gaels guard Mickey McConnell. Gonzaga has struggled all season, but that really has to shatter a team's confidence.

• Here's something that's a little off-topic. One of the most polarizing questions in this sport is the question of whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. Last week I appeared on a radio show based in Louisville hosted by ESPN broadcaster Bob Valvano and former SI writer Billy Reed. Bob raised this question and as we discussed it at some length, Billy directed my attention to an article that SI published in 1966. It was written by a young Frank Deford and it was headlined, "The Negro Athlete Is Invited Home." The article details Rupp's efforts to recruit Butch Beard, an African-American player from Louisville, to Kentucky, which would have made Beard the first black player in SEC history.

• Has there ever been a team with a softer 18-4 record than Cincinnati? I think this is a pretty good squad, but the Bearcats have a lot more work to do to make the tournament than that record would indicate. The Bearcats' nonconference strength of schedule ranking is 294. That number will be a huge anchor around their neck if they're on the bubble. Their Big East wins came at home against DePaul, Seton Hall, South Florida and Rutgers, and by two points on the road at St. John's. Cincinnati had a golden opportunity to prove it belongs in the field by playing a decimated West Virginia team at home on Saturday, and yet the Bearcats still lost by 11. Like I said, a long way to go.

• VCU is officially back on my radar screen. The Rams have won nine in a row to grab sole possession of first place in a very good CAA. It wouldn't surprise me if the CAA ends up being a two-bid league.

• Here's why Washington's Isaiah Thomas is my choice for Pac-10 Player of the Year. He had a bad shooting night against Washington State on Sunday, going 3-for-13 from the field. But he still drove the ball aggressively and was 11-for-12 from the foul line. Thomas did have seven turnovers, but that's going to happen from time to time. As long as he stays aggressive, the Huskies are going to win this conference and have a great chance to make it back to the Sweet 16.

• I'd pay to see Rotnei Clarke and The Jimmer in a game of H-O-R-S-E. Clarke's three-point shooting is off the pace from a year ago (40.7 percent, down from 42.7), but Arkansas's 6-foot junior guard exploded for 36 points in the Hogs' road upset of Vanderbilt. He was 12-for-16 from the field and 6-for-7 from three-point range.

• Bad break for Georgia Tech not having Brian Oliver for its home game against Maryland Sunday night. The Jackets were putting together a nice little run with three wins in four games (including over North Carolina and Virginia Tech). Without Oliver they just didn't have enough firepower and lost by 11.

(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Ohio State (1)2. Texas (5)3. Kansas (7)4. Pittsburgh (2)5. Connecticut (4)6. Duke (3)7. Villanova (6)8. Notre Dame (18)9. BYU (10)10. Kentucky (17)11. San Diego State (9)12. Texas A&M (11)13. Missouri (12)14. Purdue (16)15. Louisville (NR)16. Georgetown (NR)17. Minnesota (15)18. Utah State (22)19. Florida (NR)20. Vanderbilt (14)21. Syracuse (8)22. Wisconsin (20)23. Washington (21)24. Tennessee (23)25. Arizona (NR)

Dropped off my ballot: Illinois (13), Michigan State (19), Florida State (24), Belmont (25)

The big winner of the week was Notre Dame. The Irish did two things last week that really helped their cause. The first was winning at Pitt, which was even more impressive than when Tennessee beat the Panthers because the Irish did it at the on-campus Peterson Events Center. The second good thing Notre Dame did was not play over the weekend. So the Irish couldn't fritter away their momentum the way so many other ranked teams did.

How fickle is college hoops these days? Louisville got back on my ballot by beating West Virginia and UConn. They won each game by a single point. I also offer a hearty welcome back to Georgetown following the Hoyas' win at Villanova. Louisville and Georgetown play each other tonight in Washington, D.C.

Finally, Utah State is ranked (No. 22 in the AP poll). It's about time. The Aggies are now 20-2, and their only losses were at BYU and at Georgetown. Five of their last seven games have been on the road, and yet they've won them all. It's not like this is an out-of-nowhere program. Utah State has been to the last two NCAA tournaments, and Stew Morrill is one of the most respected coaches in his profession.

It has been a long time since I've been as disappointed in a team as I am right now in Illinois. The Illini have lost four out of their last five, and while their previous losses were somewhat excusable (at Penn State and Wisconsin, home against Ohio State), their loss at Indiana dropped them out. Indiana is playing some good basketball right now -- the Hoosiers nearly knocked off Michigan State in the Breslin Center before falling in overtime -- but still, if you're Illinois and you're desperate for a win, you have to win that game.

Meanwhile, I'm really starting to feel Penn State. In their last six games, the Nittany Lions have beaten Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin at home, and their two losses came on the road to Ohio State and Purdue by a total of four points. I gave a lot of thought to putting Penn State at No. 25. In the end, I went with Arizona because the Wildcats won at Washington State, where Washington lost Sunday night. But it was close.

Xavier presents a challenging case. Here's a team that hasn't lost in the Atlantic 10, and on Saturday the Musketeers scored a very impressive win at Richmond. Yet, during their nonconference schedule the Musketeers lost by 20 points at Cincinnati. It's hard for me to rank Xavier without ranking Cincinnati, and as noted above I didn't want to do that. So I left them both out.

I'm going to wait one more week before I bring back North Carolina. I was the last to jump ship on the Heels (I still say they're the second-best team in the ACC), and though they have won three straight, it hardly came against a murderer's row (Clemson, at Miami, N.C. State). North Carolina plays at Boston College tomorrow and then hosts Florida State on Sunday. Win 'em both, guys, and next week you get a number next to your name.

I also gave Marquette a close look. Unfortunately, beating Syracuse at home doesn't get you much these days. Winning at Villanova on Wednesday would get them a lot more.

I hated to bid goodbye to the Belmont Bruins, but when you play in the Atlantic Sun, you just don't have any margin for error. Belmont lost at Lipscomb last Tuesday, but trust me, they are going to be a very dangerous 14 or 15 seed.

Finally, I'd like to issue everyone a warning: I am getting dangerously close to ranking Harvard. The Crimson are 15-3 and 4-0 in the Ivy League. Their three losses have been at George Mason in the season opener; at Michigan by a three points; and at UConn. Harvard beat Colorado at home and Boston College on the road. The Crimson plays the Ivy League's second- and third-place teams, Princeton and Penn, on the road this weekend. If they win those two, I expect (though I can't promise) they'll be on my ballot next week. Get used to these three words, Hoopheads: This year's Cornell.