The 2018 College Basketball season feels wide open. I know we say this every year, but I think that sentiment is at a peak this year. But would we feel the same if the identities of the top teams were different? As Tully Corcoran noted, there are only three teams deserving of winning the title this year. Those three–Villanova, Virginia, and Purdue — do not have the name brand caché of other major programs. Villanova are legitimate national power and have been for five years, they won the title two years ago, but don’t have the consistent history of some other blue bloods. Virginia has been a consistent force in the ACC under Tony Bennett but have not had tournament success, and Purdue also has not been a frequent participant late in March (the program hasn’t reached the Elite Eight since 2000 nor the Final Four since 1980).
If Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina were having the exact same seasons as those teams, they would be touted as dominant.
So part of the perception is the name on the jersey. How does this year rank? Well, I tried to whip up a quick comparison by season going back to 2002. For every team in the Top Ten in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, I assigned 10 points for every national title, 6 points for every championship game loss, 3 points for every Final Four loss, and 1 point for every Elite Eight appearance, for the same program over the previous decade. So, for example, Maryland in 2002 would have a score based on what they did in the tournament from 1992-2001.
Here is a summary of the number of teams in the Top Ten that could be classified as Established (at least one Final Four or two Elite Eights), Powers (8 or more points), and Elites (16 or more points, which would require at least one title, and one other championship game, or two other Final Fours in previous decade).
Granted, this year is not over, and teams like Kansas and North Carolina are close to the top 10, but no recent year has seen so few programs you might consider established, at the very top.
Cincinnati has been a consistent tournament team under Mick Cronin, but hasn’t made deep runs in the NCAA tourney recently. Virginia and Purdue are in the same boat. Tennessee and Auburn are the best teams in the SEC, and neither has a history of recent success. Texas Tech could win the Big 12, and has not won a tournament game in over a decade. The Red Raiders have never advanced to an Elite Eight.
The only other year with as few Elites (Duke is the only one that is qualified this year, while Michigan State and Villanova are close) was 2010. But that’s deceiving. Duke was coming off a decade of tournament disappointments before winning the title that year, but, well, Duke is Duke. Kentucky was coming off a bad decade for the program, but had just hired John Calipari, who was a brand name that built Memphis into a power. Duke, Kansas, Syracuse, and Kentucky were the top 4 teams and all of them had won a national title in the previous 15 years.
This contrast is also made more stark by just how bloody blue last year was at the top. Gonzaga was the “worst” team in the top 10 in terms of tournament history, and the Bulldogs had been a consistent tournament team for nearly two decades before reaching last year’s finals. the rest of the Top 10 featured six teams that had recently won national titles and two more that had been in a Final Four in the near past.
By contrast, this year all of the top traditional programs have flaws. Kansas may still win the Big 12 but has lost three games in Allen Fieldhouse and don’t have great depth–it might be one of the worst teams by Bill Self’s lofty standards in the last decade. North Carolina is coming off losing a lot of talent from last year’s title time. Kentucky is very young and inconsistent. Duke is a contender but has had some notable hiccups and are terrible defensively. UCLA is not guaranteed to make the tournament, while Arizona has talent, but doesn’t seem as though the sum is as great as the parts yet.
In terms of dominance, this year’s top teams are right up there with past seasons. Sure, there will be some regression, but right now, Virginia, Villanova, and Purdue are more dominant than the top three from last year, and as dominant as the top three back in 2015 (when Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Duke were all in the Final Four as #1 seeds). The difference is perception. The top teams don’t look the same if you’ve been watching college basketball and are used to seeing the same uniforms. There’s a lot of new blood.