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Carson: Parity is a beautiful thing

| Friday, January 22, 2016

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament won’t have an undefeated team gunning for the title this year. We’ve known that for a little bit, ever since South Carolina picked up its first loss of the season in blowout fashion to Alabama.

But aside from those now-one-loss Gamecocks and the undefeated but tournament-ineligible SMU, everyone in college basketball has dropped at least two games this season — a stark contrast from the domination shown last year by Kentucky or the pursuit of perfection the year before by Wichita State.

That stat alone underscores a common theme that’s developing this year in college basketball: No team will enter the tournament field as a heavy favorite, and on any night, there’s a solid chance the team at the top will taste defeat.

For a while, it looked as if Michigan State was set for a significant reign at the top, but senior guard Denzel Valentine’s injury has sent the Spartans reeling to three straight defeats, the latest at home to a Nebraska team they really should beat by double figures, even without Valentine. What once looked like the prohibitive favorite heading into the NCAA tournament has become a team completely out of sync.

After the Spartans vacated the top spot, it was Kansas who seemed to be the potential favorite, with its triple-overtime classic win at home against Oklahoma on Jan. 4 seemingly solidifying the Jayhawks’ time at the top.

That didn’t last too long, however, as a visit to Morgantown, West Virginia, proved too difficult for Kansas, putting Buddy Hield and Oklahoma at the top of the polls.

For a week at least. Iowa State’s win over the Sooners means we’ll have yet another No. 1 squad when the AP poll comes out Monday — likely North Carolina.

The point? There’s probably 15 or 20 teams that could realistically cut down the nets in Houston when the season ends, and that’s drastically different than the scene we saw a year ago when you could count on one hand the number of squads capable of taking down unbeaten Kentucky in the tournament.

Just look around the top 25 and consider the wholly-realistic possibility that No. 20 Duke might drop out of the polls this week. Regardless of the Blue Devils’ three-game losing streak, they’re still an immensely talented team. The same goes for No. 23 Kentucky, who has yet to click this year.

When those two programs — the ones more reliant on “one-and-done” players than any others — can’t get their squads to gel, the landscape is going to be open.

Could the Big East, one of what should be considered six power conferences in basketball, produce a winner this year? Probably. No. 4 Villanova and No. 5 Xavier both have flaws, but they’re also teams that could feasibly win the title this year. Throw in No. 16 Providence and its star Kris Dunn, and you’ve got three schools that could get there one way or another from a conference not thought of enough as “major.”

Or how about No. 9 Iowa, the program that started the year as a bit of an afterthought but boasts two wins over Michigan State and another over Purdue?

No. 10 Texas A&M is far from a traditional power, as is No. 15 Miami (Florida). Yet both, with the right mix of luck and talent, could find themselves standing there in Houston as the confetti rains down as NCAA champions.

It’s a fun world to live in, where instead of fawning over professional sleazeball John Calipari’s “greatest team ever” Kentucky squad, we can fawn over the competitiveness of a college season that’s shown increased scoring and excitement nationwide.

Buckle up. The next couple months are gonna be fun.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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