By Will Chamblee | Sports Writer
For about a billion reasons, this college basketball season has been unprecedented. Playing through a pandemic has brought about an unending amount of game cancellations and program pauses. But more shockingly, the pandemic has seemingly toppled the blue bloods of the sport, at least for this season.
For the first time since 1961, neither Kentucky, Duke nor North Carolina were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Perennial power Michigan State, led by Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, has also fallen outside of the AP Top 25. Kansas, who has never been below a four seed in the NCAA tournament under head coach Bill Self, is coming perilously close to breaking that streak.
Blue bloods struggling isn’t exactly unheard of. Last season, North Carolina finished a dismal 14-19, in part due to injuries sustained by star guard and one-and-done Cole Anthony. The 2012-13 Kentucky Wildcats famously missed the NCAA tournament despite having three future first-round draft picks on their team.
But to have each blue blood struggle all at once is unprecedented. However, considering the pandemic, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Blue bloods have dominated the college basketball landscape for the past two decades by using five-star freshmen and one-and-dones, prioritizing talent over experience.
A combination of a weak freshman class, as well as a pandemic that did not allow players to practice over the summer, has rendered this model ineffective, as freshman players have had to learn on the fly.
“There are no shortcuts. There are no shortcuts at anything,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. “But I’ll say, like every young team – not just ours – any inexperienced team that hasn’t been together, big disadvantage (with) no summer, no fall (this season).”
The lack of time spent by freshmen in their respective programs has shown, as top-10 freshmen recruits Terrence Clarke, Brandon Boston and Moussa Cisse have all struggled to adapt to the college game.
This year, experience is king. It’s clear to see in the AP Top 25, as experienced teams like Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston and Villanova lead the polls. The lack of summer practice has been far less harmful to the experienced players who are already comfortable with the pace and physicality of the college game.
“Most young teams say they were hurt by not having a summer and not having to practice before the season started as you would normally,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said in an interview with USA TODAY. “That’s going to impact a young team oftentimes more than an older, more experienced team.”
In the grand scheme of things, it won’t be long before college basketball’s blue bloods are back to dominating the sport. This season, however, will serve as a breath of fresh air for college basketball fans, as it will give them a chance to see other teams make a run at an NCAA title. Programs like Houston, Baylor and Alabama have a chance to win a championship for the first time in their school’s history, thanks in part to the void left by the blue bloods this season.