Nothing says the start of the college basketball season like the Champions Classic, the annual blue-blood-fueled doubleheader with a March-in-November feel. Tuesday, that meant Kansas being pitted against Michigan State and Duke against Kentucky in New York.
Best on best, right?
Not so much anymore.
Take those four programs, toss in North Carolina and you’ve got the five leaders in NCAA Tournament wins this century. But there has been a not-so-subtle falling off of late that was starkly evident when last season’s Big Dance rolled around: Kansas was a 3 seed, North Carolina an 8 and Michigan State an 11 — all three were quickly eliminated — and Duke and Kentucky were both absent from the field for the first time since 1976.
The 2015 tournament was the only one of the last nine in which more than one of the five traditional powerhouses reached the Final Four. Last season — for the first time in eight years — none of the five got there.
Of course, nobody at all got there two seasons ago, when the tournament was canceled as COVID-19 spread. Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke were ranked 1-4 in the 2019-20 preseason Top 25, but only Kansas, as it turned out, would’ve had a shot at a No. 1 seed had the tournament been played.
This season? The Jayhawks were third in the preseason Top 25, the Blue Devils ninth, the Wildcats 10th, the Tar Heels 19th and the Spartans nowhere to be found. On the whole: not terrible, but no longer a group that stands apart from the rest.
To the rest of a season-preview Big 10 (where 10 actually means 10):
2. Gonzaga’s title quest: Guess who’s ranked No. 1 going in for the second year in a row. Are the Zags ever going to win a national championship? They’ve been to 22 straight tournaments, 21 of them under Mark Few, whose previously spotless reputation — not counting the whole can’t-win-it-all thing — took a hit with his offseason DUI.
3. What about Baylor? The defending champs are ranked eighth, but I put them at 18th on my ballot. Two reasons: Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell. As in, they’re gone. So are the Bears’ chances of being great again.
4. What about UCLA? The Bruins are No. 2 — and I ranked them fourth — because the whole gang is back. Come on, you remember them: Johnny Juzang, Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. et al. But remember, their run to the Final Four almost didn’t happen; they barely got into the tournament. Are we all overrating them?
5. Coach K, all day: Nobody’s going to stop talking about Mike Krzyzewski, 74, who’s in his last season at Duke. Northbrook guy Jon Scheyer is going to replace him, if you haven’t heard. Hubert Davis is the new boss at North Carolina, replacing Roy Williams. That’ll take some zing out of this rivalry, won’t it?
6. Penny Hardaway’s comeback: It’s actually Season 4 for Hardaway at Memphis, but it has been easy to miss him; his Tigers have yet to get to a Big Dance. Yeah, well, that ends this season — and don’t be surprised if Memphis plays to a 1 or 2 seed. Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates are potential top-five NBA picks in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
7. Other duos: Gonzaga has Drew Timme, the frontrunner for national player of the year, and Chet Holmgren, the top freshman in the 2021 class. Must be nice. The Big Ten (where Ten doesn’t mean anything close to Ten) has Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo at 11th-ranked Illinois and Jaden Ivey and Trevion Williams at seventh-ranked Purdue. Just spitballing here, but the Illini and Boilermakers really should think about putting together a best-of-seven two-on-two event with those guys.
8. Speaking of the Big Ten: At this point, I’ve got Illinois as the third-best team — behind Michigan and Purdue — in an excellent league. Ohio State is next. Don’t forget about Rutgers or Maryland and, sure, Michigan State could really rise up.
9. Oh, um, Northwestern: We should probably address the developing situation in Evanston, which is that nothing much seems to be, you know, developing. Since breaking through with their first-ever Big Dance appearance in 2017, the Wildcats have finished 10th, 14th, 13th and 12th in the Big Ten standings. I’ve got them 12th this time, ahead of only Minnesota and Penn State.
10. The big lie? Tons of people are saying the Big Ten is the best conference in the country. I would be, too, if the league had produced a single national champion since Michigan State in 2000. It’s hard to ignore a streak that’s old enough to legally drink. I’m going with the Big 12 instead.