Parity abounds in college basketball



More like setups.

It seems silly that we're still being lulled into an old way of seeing things in college basketball. Thinking a team is entitled to victory because of its long-established brand (Belmont 83, North Carolina 80), or because it happens to have a single-digit number placed in front of its name (Iowa State 77, No. 7 Michigan 70) is outdated.

That school you happen to discount because you think they play in an off-brand conference (Green Bay 75, Virginia 72)? Yeah, they have players too.

College basketball looks to be headed toward another season where no team claims the title of juggernaut. When the season first began, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he believed more than a dozen teams had legitimate NCAA title hopes. That number has probably grown since then.

How else can you explain the Tar Heels losing at UAB only to beat then-No. 1 Michigan State by 14 points in East Lansing? Thanks to that loss, we're already on our third No. 1 team in just six weeks of polls. There's no reason to think the record for most No. 1s in a season, seven set in 1982-83, won't be tested.

Once upon a time, being ranked in the top 10 brought a certain amount of fear to opponents. Now, it just enhances the court-storming (Colorado 75, No. 6 Kansas 72) afterward.

"There's so much more balance," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "People don't like to use that word, what is it? Parity. Nobody likes to use that word, but that's the truth."

Williams believes this is nothing new. He said there haven't been many dominant teams the past few years. He points back his 2009 title team at Carolina and Kentucky's net-cutting team in 2012 as the last two that ran roughshod over their tournament foes en route to the championship.

Even still, Williams added a caveat about 2012, pointing to when point guard Kendall Marshall broke his wrist in the Sweet 16.

"I'd like to have had our chances if we had all of our guys," he said.

That doesn't sound like fear.

And that was a Kentucky team that featured Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2012 NBA draft.

Now multiply that disregard for so-called top teams by the 345 teams in Division I basketball. That's where we are right now. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall embodies that spirit. During nine seasons at Winthrop, out of the Big South Conference, the Eagles knocked off a team from a power conference almost annually.

"I've never been intimidated as a coach even when I was at Winthrop just getting started -- we talked about winning," Marshall said. "We talked about going on the road winning these games and that's the only way you can do it. You've got to believe you can do it. It's a cliché but you've got to believe to achieve and I'm just crazy enough, I guess, to think that's going to happen."

Marshall believes the shift in college basketball largely has to do with elite players leaving for the NBA, while schools like Wichita State have players who are embedded for years.

The Shockers rely on veteran players. Ron Baker, their leading scorer at 15.3 points per game, is a third-year sophomore. They don't have any freshmen among their top 10 players in the rotation. The two freshmen who have played for the Shockers this season have played a combined 28 minutes.

"After years and years of plucking those best players out before they finish their college careers, it gets to a point where the teams who do have four-year guys, or even five-year guys at times, have an advantage even though they were two-star and three-star -- or maybe no-star -- recruits versus the four- and five-star recruits that play one year," Marshall said.

Marshall carried that attitude over to the Shockers, as they bounced No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Ohio State in last season's NCAA tournament en route to the Final Four. This season, the Shockers are ranked eighth in the USA Today Coaches poll, and No. 12 in the Associated Press poll.

The discrepancy is likely proof that some still hold an inexplicable belief that a Missouri Valley Conference school should not be ranked so high.

"I looked at that coaches' poll and rattle off the seven teams in front of us and a couple of teams right behind us and obviously there's one of them that doesn't really fit all the criteria that other teams have," said Marshall, referring to the Shockers. "It's pretty cool to be that team."

Arizona coach Sean Miller thinks the same about being ranked No. 1. The Wildcats haven't been atop the college basketball landscape since 2003.

During his scheduled news conference Monday he told reporters assembled that his team would embrace their ranking. Miller sounded like being at the top wasn't much different from being near the top.

"Everybody loves to beat the team that is ranked No. 1," Miller said. "I would also tell you that we were ranked No. 2 last week. It isn't as if anyone looks at that ranking and says, 'It's not that big a deal.'"

Actually coach, they all look at rankings that way. And that's part of what makes this season so unpredictable.