The theme of the 2014-15 college hoops season was the strength at the highest level of the sport.
Kentucky was arguably the best team that we’ve seen in the early entry era, winning their first 38 games of the season and coming within a few ugly offensive possessions from getting a shot at Duke and a perfect, 40-0 season.
But it was more than just the Wildcats. Just as there was an obvious pick as the No. 1 team, there was a clear-cut delineation between the top seven teams in the country and everyone else: Wisconsin, Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Villanova and Arizona. Combined, those seven teams entered the NCAA tournament with just 16 losses, three of which came to another one of the top seven and two of which were after Virginia lost Justin Anderson, an injury that changed the course of their season.
None of those seven teams finished the season with more than four losses.
And while there were other good teams around the country — Notre Dame gave Kentucky all they could handle in the Elite 8, Michigan State reached the Final Four, Wichita State and Northern Iowa both won a ton of games — the toughest thing to do every week was find three teams to finish out the top ten. Those other three just didn’t feel like top ten teams, not in the context of the top seven.
This season is very different.
North Carolina was the nation’s preseason No. 1 team, a ranking that won’t last two weeks, as the Tar Heels lost at Northern Iowa on Saturday afternoon. UNC, however, is hardly the only elite team that’s struggled this season. No. 3 Maryland trailed Rider by as much as 14 points in the second half at the XFinity Center on Friday night. No. 4 Kansas lost to Michigan State in the Champions Classic just hours after No. 5 Duke was blown out by Kentucky. No. 6 Virginia lost at George Washington. No. 9 Wichita State lost at Tulsa.
The season kicked off eight days ago.
And the reason for that is that no one is really all that good this season. North Carolina was the best of a group of teams that would usually be ranked somewhere around, say, No. 5 or No. 6 entering the year, and they haven’t even had their best player available yet this season. Kentucky is going to end up being the No. 1 team in the country when the new polls are released on Monday, and they looked really good against Duke. But they’ve also been a bit underwhelming in their three other games. Michigan State is the other team that has really impressed early in the season, landing a come-from-behind win over Kansas on their resume, but they were outplayed for 30 minutes and needed a 29-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist performance — something that is not exactly replicable — from Denzel Valentine to get that win.
There’s a perfectly valid explanation for this: The 2015 recruiting class is just not very good.
Think about it.
Brandon Ingram was supposed to come in and be the difference-maker for the Duke Blue Devils, and while he was impressive against overmatched competition like Siena and Bryant, he has eight points, six turnovers and shot 3-for-13 in his last two games. Chase Jeter can’t even get off Duke’s bench. Jamal Murray is living up to the hype and Isaiah Briscoe is embracing his role, but Skal Labissiere’s defensive issues have limited the impact he can have on the offensive end. North Carolina didn’t bring in any star freshmen. Maryland’s key additions were transfers, not Diamond Stone, who played bad enough against Georgetown to get benched. Kansas’ Cheick Diallo isn’t cleared.
The best teams in college basketball, for the most part, build around freshmen these days, and when those freshmen aren’t capable of being built around, this is what happens.
And the result is going to be a season where five top ten teams losing in the span of a week isn’t much of an aberration.