One of the best Christmas presents that college basketball fans receive is the end of the dreadful, pre-conference schedule.
Until this point in the season, except for a few made-for-TV match-ups, competitive offerings are slim. Most college powers set up schedules guaranteeing 10 wins by the time they play their first conference game of the season.
That’s becoming a problem for college basketball, where the early games are oftentimes boring and the outcomes mostly assured. It’s good for a coach who wants to pad his schedule, but not so for fans who pay good money to watch bad teams.
Recent estimates of the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) used to evaluate teams at the end of the season, which factors schedule strength, showed that Indiana so far has played seven teams ranked 150th or lower. The Hoosiers aren’t alone. Louisville claims six victories against bottom-feeders, while Kentucky, UCLA and Duke have five. The list could be much longer.
Conversely teams with the poorest records play the toughest schedules. Among the Top 10 in the Strength of Schedule rankings thus far are North Dakota (1-6), Oakland (2-9), Santa Barbara (4-3) and Grambling (0-4). They do get paid well - in ticket receipts - for their beatings.
It wasn’t always this way. When Denny Crum coached Louisville to two national championships, he loaded up the early portion of his schedules in hopes of getting his teams ready for conference play. For instance, in 1985, his pre-New Year schedule included Miami (Ohio), St. John’s, Tulsa, Kansas, Purdue, Indiana and Kentucky. It worked. The Cardinals won the 1986 NCAA crown.
Today’s soft schedules make it harder to tell which teams are the better ones in the opening weeks of the season. It’s generally safe to say the powers use the initial weeks to reload and work new players into their systems.
The most interesting aspect of the season so far has been the introduction of high-level freshman phenoms. Given the hype, big things were to be expected at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke. So far, the freshmen have played well, but not like the memorable, one-and-done game-changers they were projected to be.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was the first to acknowledge that not all that glitters is gold. Good players, yes; great players, no. At least so far.
“There’s no player that’s out there on the horizon that’s a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James,” he said. “I’ve seen all these guys play. I think they’re very talented players. They’re not that kind of player.”
That’s not the assessment that was expected at John Calipari U., where the freshmen had already been dubbed “the greatest class ever.” There was banter about an undefeated season at Kentucky, but Calipari's Wildcats have already lost three games. A showdown against defending national champion Louisville is on tap for Dec. 28.
It’s been much the same at Kansas, where Andrew Wiggins arrived on campus amid comparisons to former Jayhawk star Wilt Chamberlain. Three early-season losses have tempered those comments, but Kansas has played the toughest schedule of the major powers so far, much to its credit.
Duke is off to an 8-2 start and looks to have the best freshman in the country in 6-foot-8 Jabari Parker, who is averaging 22 points a game. The Blue Devils have been ranked in the Top 10 dating back 222 games. That’s likely to continue.
All these teams should survive the two month-plus grind of conference games to play in the NCAA Tournament in March. How far they go will depend on whether the freshmen have matured as college players and shaken off bad habits from high school and AAU.
Calipari summed up the situation accurately in an assessment of his own players this week on his website, but it probably could go for other budding stars, as well. “They are great kids,” he said, “but they have bad basketball habits they keep falling back to.”
The good news is that the shake-out is about over. The days of playing no-names will be done, and it will be time to step up and play or get out of the way.
Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.