By Matthew Soderberg | Sports Writer
No. 1 Baylor men’s basketball hasn’t lost since early November. The Bears’ success is unprecedented, yes, but it also signifies a paradigm in college basketball — one that shifts away from the traditional blue bloods and towards the insurgents.
The national champion 12 of the previous 13 seasons was a team that had won a title before. The lone exception? Last year’s Virginia squad, but even that school had been in the national conversation for years.
College sports are different from the professional level not just in compensation for the athletes involved, but also because there is a consistent lack of parity in the college ranks. Blue blood programs dominate the landscape. Take the previous three national champions as examples: Villanova, North Carolina and Duke. The bluest of the blue.
There has been a change in the air this season. Baylor is No. 1 in the AP poll. Gonzaga is No. 2. San Diego State is No. 4. None of these teams have won a title, and have a combined three Final Fours with the Bulldogs as the only ones to have been there in the past 69 years.
There is a very good chance that a first-time national champion will be crowned for the second year in a row and for the first time since Michigan and UNLV went back-to-back in 1989 and 1990. Baylor can win. Gonzaga can win. Florida State has shown it can compete. Even San Diego State ranks highly in KenPom as it’s currently undefeated.
It helps the newcomers that teams like North Carolina and Kentucky and Michigan State are struggling. The Tar Heels are in danger of missing the tournament altogether, while the Wildcats and the Spartans had much higher expectations for themselves coming into the season.
But some blue bloods still loom. Kansas and Duke still share the highest rankings on KenPom, and all the teams from No. 8 to No. 12 in KenPom all have won before. There is a chance for parity. An opportunity for the young bloods to breakthrough.
Does the parity help the sport, though? The judgment that college basketball teams just aren’t that good this season has been a major subject of commentary, and that’s because the blue bloods have been struggling. When casual fans don’t see the teams at the top that they expect, they tend to tune out because they assume the product isn’t as good.
But parity is good! It represents growth in the sport, a leveling of the playing field. Top prospects don’t need to go to NBA factories like Duke and Kentucky to have success, and that is apparent with success stories like Ben Simmons (LSU), Trae Young (Oklahoma) and Ja Morant (Murray State). Even teams without major NBA prospects like San Diego State can have success.
Teams don’t have to be powerhouses to be good. Teams don’t have to be in North Carolina or Kentucky to be good. Cheer for your schools, but don’t get down just because they are.
P.S. Why does Kansas still have a No. 1 vote? Jesse Newell, you have some nerve my man. Baylor beat them. The Bears beat the Jayhawks in Lawrence, Kan. Please reconsider.