The past three months of college basketball have been so unpredictable and bizarre that we’re perpetually discovering new ways to show the topsy-turvy nature that has ruled.
Here’s another one: The torchbearers of two-thirds of the nation’s traditional power conferences are virtually unrecognizable.
Sure, if you’ve been paying attention this season, some of the names won’t surprise you. This scramble is our new normal. But viewed from the prism of history, some crazy things are going on all at once.
Take the Atlantic Coast Conference, where North Carolina is king, and things look like business as usual. But elsewhere, the current state is a little wacky.
This week, things got more confusing with three major conference races featuring a three-way tie at the top. Some of those power conference power teams? Teams such as Iowa, Maryland, LSU, USC, Oregon and West Virginia.
It’s enough to make the casual fan do a double-take.
Indiana snuggled up to front-runners Iowa and Maryland after a big win over the Hawkeyes on Thursday, giving the Hoosiers a chance to match their 2013 Big Ten title.
But Indiana’s fellow pack leaders are as fresh as Cinderella at the ball.
The Terrapins, before last season, were coming off a rough end to their tenure in the ACC, finishing seventh or lower in each of the previous four years. Iowa, traditionally a middling program, last won the league in 1979.
Kansas has been as close to a sure thing as there is in college basketball, seizing the Big 12 title for the past 11 seasons, but the Jayhawks only just slipped into first place after topping West Virginia on Tuesday. Joining them there? Oklahoma — a rivalry that continues with a marquee head-to-head matchup Saturday — and West Virginia, which has finished higher than fifth in a conference race only twice in the past decade, both in the Big East.
In the SEC, Kentucky has finally perked up, joining LSU and South Carolina in first place, but the erratic Wildcats have not beaten either foe. They’ll get the chance Saturday, when they face the Gamecocks on the road.
But regardless of that outcome, it’s hard to ignore the odd events of this year. The last time LSU led the league was in 2008-09, the year before the start of the John Calipari era at Kentucky and the last time the Wildcats placed out of the top three.
In the six years since, Kentucky and Florida have taken turns celebrating the crown at the end of the conference season; on Monday, neither of them were in that top trio.
And things could get nuttier. Nipping at the threesome’s heels along with Florida? Texas A&M, a team that hasn’t been dubbed “champion” since the 1980s.
Then there’s the Pac-12, where the revolving door of Arizona, UCLA, Washington and Cal is out (for now) and 14-year absentee Oregon is in. Knocking at the door in second? That would be USC, which hasn’t been there since 1985 and has made the NCAA tournament just once in the past seven years.
My suggestion? Don’t try to understand it — just enjoy the ride.
WEEKEND GAME TO WATCH
No. 6 Kansas at No. 3 Oklahoma, 1:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
If you’ve been counting down to this rematch, you likely won’t be disappointed. Remember the game that took three overtimes to resolve and featured a 46-point performance by someone on the losing team? Yeah, Round 2 is coming at you, full force.
It’s been a little more than a month since Kansas topped Oklahoma 109-106 and the sheen has not faded. Buddy Hield still is raining threes like salt on a rib-eye.
And after gutty wins over West Virginia and Texas for Kansas and Oklahoma, respectively, expect these two teams to be operating at full tilt.
NUMBERS TO KNOW
106 Point differential in Kentucky’s past four home games, all wins, but the Wildcats have dropped three of the last four on the road heading into Saturday’s game at South Carolina.
1 Number of teams ranked in analyst Ken Pomeroy’s top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The team? Virginia.
20-5 Indiana’s record, one victory better than fellow Big Ten leader Iowa (19-5) after Thursday’s win. But Iowa’s strength of schedule ranks 12th nationally, while Indiana’s sits at 147.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Duke has been somewhat of a mystery this season. After a few good but not great wins in nonconference, the Blue Devils started league play 3-3 after a head-scratching three-game losing streak that didn’t include any of the league leaders.
After Monday’s 72-65 win over Louisville, Duke is starting to look more consistent and reliable. But do the Blue Devils belong with the big boys? The next three game stretch involving Virginia at home and North Carolina and Louisville (again) on the road will go a long way in answering that.
BIG TEN POWER POLL
Maryland's Diamond Stone.
Iowa (19-5, 10-2 Big Ten): There might be three teams at the top, but the Hawkeyes are the only ones who consistently look the part.
Maryland (22-3, 10-2): The Terrapins might as well have had a week off after obliterating D-II Bowie State.
Indiana (20-5, 10-2): Don’t look now but the Hoosiers’ remaining schedule is ranked 10th nationally in terms of toughness, according to ESPN Stats and info.
Purdue (20-5, 8-4): Seniors A.J. Hammons and Rapheal Davis combined for 43 points Tuesday in the Boilermakers’ first victory over Michigan State since 2011.
Wisconsin (15-9, 7-4): Six consecutive wins have followed a 9-9 start, but the Badgers are still only on the cusp of the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi.
Michigan State (20-5, 7-5): The Spartans lead the Big Ten in 10 major categories: scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, three-point defense, three-point percentage, rebound margin, assists, assist to turnovers, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and scoring margin.
Michigan (18-7, 8-4): Senior star Caris LeVert finally is cleared to play — but he’s still not back on the court.
Ohio State (15-10, 7-5): The worst free-throw shooting team in the Big Ten needed a 19-for-23 (82.6 percent) effort Tuesday to top Northwestern.
Nebraska (13-12, 5-7): Shavon Shields’ absence won’t help Nebraska recover from a run of four losses in five games. Mercifully for the Huskers, the schedule gets easier.
Penn State (12-12, 3-8): Hold the league’s top shooting team to less than a point per possession and you’ve got a shot – and the Nittany Lions made it in a win over Indiana.
Northwestern (16-9, 4-8): Outside of two wins over Minnesota by a total of 49 points, the Wildcats have just one league win this calendar year.
Illinois (11-13, 3-8): Kendrick Nunn has totaled 16 points in two games since suffering a hip contusion against Wisconsin.
Minnesota (6-18, 0-12): The Gophers are on their longest losing streak to start Big Ten play ever.
Rutgers (6-18, 0-11): Coach Eddie Jordan is 2-28 against Big Ten teams since the Scarlet Knights joined the league at the start of last year.