New bloods changing college hoops landscape
Perennial powers frontloaded the final poll of the 2012-13 college basketball season.
The top 10 included Louisville, Kansas, Duke, Indiana and Georgetown. Gonzaga was No. 1, at the start of its rise to the sport’s upper echelon.
Flash forward 10 years and the AP Top 25 has a different look and feel.
New programs have risen to the top tier. Upsets have turned up the madness in March even more. A few bluebloods have lost a bit of their shine.
“When you look at college basketball, there are some new bloods,” said ESPN college basketball analyst and former coach Seth Greenberg. “The bluebloods have an opportunity to reemerge as the season goes along, but we’ve got some new bloods that are stepping up and making a statement.”
Changes in the sport have led to the shuffling at the top.
Elite recruits have become more willing to eschew the traditional powers for smaller schools, spreading talent across the country. NIL deals have helped facilitate the shift, offering players opportunities they had never had before at those schools.
The transfer portal has allowed schools to replenish rosters quickly, pull in players who have experience and maturity that can fit in quickly. Some schools have invested more in facilities and coaches, adding to the allure of their programs.
The lasting effects of the pandemic — namely the extra year of eligibility — has also made teams older, adding cohesiveness and coachability.
“Because of the COVID year, you have older, more experienced teams that have grown or been put together that have the maturity and understanding of what it takes to be successful,” Greenberg said. “But the big thing is new coaches in certain leagues have done a really good job of evaluating and recruiting.”
The evidence is in the rankings.
Purdue has continued its rise under coach Matt Painter, spending six weeks atop the poll this season after earning the program’s first No. 1 ranking a year ago. Tennessee has become a defensive menace, steadily rising until reaching No. 2 this week.
Kelvin Sampson has molded Houston into one of the nation’s toughest teams to play. The Cougars went to the Final Four in 2021 and had two stints at No. 1 this season. No. 4 Alabama has shown it can play some basketball, too, reaching the Sweet 16 two years ago, climbing to No. 2 last week.
No. 7 Kansas State, picked to finish last in the Big 12, has made a quick rise under first-year coach Jerome Tang, a former long-time assistant at Baylor. No. 15 TCU is no longer known as just a football school, while schools like Florida Atlantic and Charleston have risen through the ranks.
No. 20 Clemson leads the ACC and Pittsburgh is just a game back. No. 18 Saint Mary’s is ahead of No. 12 Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference.
On the flip side, North Carolina fell off quickly. A national finalist last season, the Tar Heels went from preseason No. 1 to out of the AP Top 25 in less than a month.
Kentucky struggled so much earlier in the season, fans were calling for coach John Calipari to be fired. Villanova dropped off precipitously in its first season since Jay Wright retired.
Of course there’s still a month left in the regular season, so the middling bluebloods can still turn it around.
And once it gets to March Madness, the final chapter has still tended to be written by established powers.
Kansas won last year’s national championship after an all-blueblood Final Four. ACC schools won three titles between 2015-19, wrapped around two Villanova championships.
But with those big-name champions, chaos has reigned with some of the biggest upsets and unexpected deep March runs the past few years.
Loyola Chicago reached the 2018 Final Four after Maryland-Baltimore County beat Virginia to become the first No. 16 seed to topple a No. 1 in NCAA Tournament history. Oral Roberts reached the Sweet 16 in 2021, Saint Peter’s the Elite Eight a year ago.
The way this season has gone so far, college basketball fans could be in for the maddest March yet.