Editor’s Note: The following contains two statistics that were true at time of our print deadline, but which are no longer true (thanks, Alabama).
The prevailing narrative about NCAA men’s basketball this season is its unpredictability.
No team has held the No. 1 ranking for more than a week, and there are only two undefeated teams out of 345: No. 4 Auburn and No. 7 San Diego State. Both are at the top of their respective conferences. Auburn made the Final Four last year. San Diego State hasn’t been to the Sweet Sixteen since 2014.
This atmosphere feels strange coming on the heels of a college football season with fewer games, fewer teams — there are 130 teams in the FBS, the top tier of Division I football — and much more obvious talent and resource gaps between the top and bottom teams in a conference.
This season, it seems like anybody’s game. Ten of the 32 conferences in Division I have teams in the AP Top 25 poll, the highest number in at least the last five years.
This all comes down to one concept: parity. In sports, parity is the idea that most or all of the teams in a given set are on an equal playing field. Any of them could make a run at the top spot, and every team is liable to get upset under any number of circumstances.
And it is so much fun.
Take a look at the in-conference rankings. The average last-place team in the division is 3.5 games behind in a 20-game conference season, meaning they would have to win three games and have the first-place team lose three games in order to move into a first-place tie. The farthest-back team in the NCAA is Wyoming, at six games behind in the Mountain West Conference, which also houses San Diego State.
These deficits pale in comparison to professional basketball. In the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors are last in their conferences at 24.5 and 26.5 games behind, respectively.
These deficits account for approximately half of the 52 conference games each NBA team plays each season, compared to the 17% of the season the NCAA’s average deficit occupies. Any team in the NCAA has a better chance to win its conference than the NBA’s two last-place teams have to win theirs.
In the Big Ten, the parity is readily apparent. Five teams are ranked in AP’s Top 25, more than any other conference in the division. A casual viewer would expect these five to make up the top five or so teams in the conference. In the Big Ten, three are at the top and two are down at the bottom, above only Northwestern.
Four double-digit win teams are in the bottom half of the conference, and perennial conference whipping boy Rutgers seems poised to go dancing for the first time since 1991. With a single win, Purdue jumped five spots in the conference and is in a position to make moves on Maryland and Wisconsin — teams ranked above it in the Big Ten — in the next two weeks.
Football has some of this chaos on a smaller scale, but its weirdness is normally reserved for single teams making impressive runs. Coach O and Joe Burrow took Louisiana State from “strong, but not championship strong” to “could beat a bad NFL team” in a single season. P.J. Fleck very nearly had Minnesota rowing the boat to the Rose Bowl.
Keep in mind that all of this is very early in the conference season. As we draw into February and early March, the concrete will set and we’ll see less mobility, but that’s what makes this period so entertaining to follow.
This early-season madness, where every loss creates a tectonic shift in the standings but can also be redeemed by a later rematch makes the game interesting and fun to speculate about.
And nothing in sports media is more fun than wild speculation.