By Matt Norlander
With a little more than 60 days until Selection Sunday (and don't you worry, these two months are about to whizz by), you know what I'm most happy -- and what should excite you the most -- about college basketball in 2014? The undeniable bevy of Final Four and national title contenders. There's an age-old argument that comes up annually with college hoops that is inescapable. What's better, a cluster of clubs capable of capturing the crown, or one or two elite teams that separate from the rest?
I always want more cooks in my college hoops kitchen. Keep it interesting, spicy, less predictable and give us the biggest possible stew of superior teams. Sports, and the ever-desired din of a grand "narrative," always benefits with a villain or two, but college basketball doesn't need a team running away at the top of the polls to achieve this: Duke and Kentucky are now and for the foreseeable future the black hats of the sport, records be damned. So this season is providing us with the best of both: two popular-yet-polarizing programs and an abundance of really-good-to-borderline-great teams. No, there's not yet irrefutable evidence of an all-time-awesome team in this batch, but can I say two things about that?
First, those kind of teams aren't part of the pattern, and this predictable lament from people (usually drive-by commentators on the game) shouldn't be taken as serious discourse. Name me the great teams from college basketball since 1996 Kentucky. Kentucky of 2012 qualifies, and the '05 and '09 UNC teams have a say, but beyond that (maybe Kansas in 2008?), you don't see these transcendent college basketball teams with every season. The lack of a great team doesn't correlate with the lack of a great season. And secondly, there remains a possibility we could be graced with a special/memorable/great club this year, but we'll have to sit and wait to see if that comes to be. (Patience: also seldom kind to that bunco narrative business.)
So, with an absence of one or two "special" teams, the sport's best in 2013-14 are proving to be providing a thicker top tier than usual. Last week's AP rankings had 27 combined losses among the top 20 squads. This piece has been written prior to the release of the latest polls, but safe to say the top 20 teams won't own more than 30 or so losses, combined, with less than two months remaining in the regular season. That's astounding and really good for the more nuanced national conversation that surrounds the game. It's one of those trends that sort of creeps up on you. Consider Arizona, Syracuse, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh, Villanova, San Diego State, Massachusetts. Aside from all being really good, they combine for just six losses in 160 games completed. No question I can see each of those teams making the Elite Eight and/or Final Four. Not a fraud in the bunch, not even Pittsburgh (which has the weakest non-conference schedule of the bunch, checking in at 291 on KenPom).
Then there's the two-loss clubs, 11 of them at this point. Florida, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Creighton, Baylor, Missouri, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Harvard, Stephen F. Austin and Toledo. You've got two players, Creighton's Doug McDermott and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, chasing each other for Player of the year. And those final three teams listed are certainly on their way to winning their leagues and being the thorn in your side come bracket pickin' time. Harvard could enter the discussion of being the greatest Ivy League team -- ever.
Then there's the three-loss clubs. Iowa's in that group. Yeah, the Hawkeyes squad that just won at -- that's at -- two-loss Ohio State Sunday. Fran McCaffery might be prone to a tantrum, but he can really coach, and this team is a Final Four dark horse. Not feeling that? Just know Iowa's losses are at two undefeated teams and one-loss Villanova (in overtime). Colorado, UCLA, Oregon, Gonzaga, VCU, Memphis also only have three losses. As do Louisville and Kentucky! Yeah, it's going to be a beautiful, disastrous mess when the tournament selection committee convenes. Look how deep into the field we are. Go back and scan the teams. How many of these groups aren't capable of winning 25 games and making a Sweet 16? I'd argue not one. Many could win three tournament games.
And so that's why this seems to be one of the strongest regular seasons in college basketball's recent history. This is why the sport has become so enjoyable, in addition to a rise in scoring and the continued presence of the blue bloods. Did you notice how I didn't even mention Duke and Kansas and North Carolina? Yeah, they're all struggling at the moment -- yet between the three of them this season they still have beaten Michigan State, Kentucky, Louisville, UCLA, Michigan and Duke.
It's not any star player. It's not the freshmen. College basketball's great this year for the reasons it's good in most years: a plethora of interesting teams with talent and coaching to keep things interesting into March. The difference this season has been those freshmen but also a consistency at the top of the polls. You'll notice the 1-10 spots haven't been nearly as volatile as in most seasons.
This will end up being a big payoff come March, when I expect more disagreement over who makes the Final Four than what we normally see. You know how this goes in most years. You'll have one or two teams that are the far and away favorites to win four games. Those are always No. 1 seeds. Then, usually a third No. 1 seed sneaks in as a groupthink favorite. And the fourth team is either that final No. 1 or a No. 2 with an argument to be No.1.
This season I believe we'll have a case made for all the 1s, 2s and probably most 3s. A team or two in that top tier right now will slip, just as a team or two outside of it will catapult into the conversation.
This is turning into the season for the diehards and casuals alike. A year of college basketball that is providing star power from freshmen (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Tyler Ennis) and seniors (McDermott, C.J Fair, Chaz Williams, DeAndre Kane, Shabazz Napier, Russ Smith, Adreian Payne; I can keep going if you want) alike. Teams from every pocket of the country and spread across all the power and second-tier power leagues. The game seems to more appealing cosmetically as well, as offense is trending up. It's a confluence. It's exceeding expectations, which is a thing this sport usually only provides when March arrives.
* * *
Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.