Two seasons ago, Butler and VCU took advantage of the thick parity in college basketball by devising two of the most improbable Final Four runs in NCAA Tournament history.
That year, Ohio State, Duke and Kansas each spent time as the No. 1 team in the nation, but there was no clear-cut favorite to win the national championship. The Buckeyes fell in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky, Duke was dropped in the same round by Arizona and the Jayhawks were ousted by VCU in the Elite Eight. Pittsburgh, the fourth No. 1 seed that year was taken out in bizarre fashion by Butler in the third round.
A year later, Kentucky was essentially crowned champions before the season even started. The Wildcats were the unanimous No. 1 and boasted what would turn out to be six NBA draft picks, four in the first round.
John Calipari and his well-organized group of one-and-done wunderkinds cruised to a national championship, leaving Louisville and Kansas in a cloud of smoke at the Final Four.
Three-fourths of the way through the season, it’s starting to seem like the 2010-11 season again.
Conference opponents are beating up on each other and no one team is favored to win the national title. Tuesday night was a prime example when Arkansas, a team with bad losses to Texas A&M and South Carolina, handily beat No. 2 Florida 80-69 at home.
“People may look at that and say, ‘What’s wrong with Florida?’” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart, who was an assistant under Florida coach Billy Donovan for one season. “I look at that and say, ‘Arkansas was ready to play, they have an unbelievable atmosphere, I’m sure the arena was sold out, and they have good players.’ It’s actually not that surprising.”
Not that surprising is the way La Salle coach John Giannini put it when his team defeated Butler at home then turned around and beat VCU on the road three days later. The Explorers’ week of upsets epitomized the parity that is going around the Atlantic 10 conference and college basketball in general.
Nearly every team in the top half of the Atlantic 10 standings has taken a loss to a team in the bottom tier. VCU (18-5, 6-2) lost by 12 points at Richmond (14-9, 4-4). Charlotte (17-5, 5-3) lost to the Spiders and at George Washington (11-10, 5-3). St. Louis (17-5, 6-2), arguably the hottest team in the conference right now, went down in overtime to Rhode Island (6-15, 1-7) over two weeks ago (records as of Wednesday afternoon).
The scoring margins are an indication of how tight the league race is. Since the Atlantic 10 dash started, St. Louis tops the conference by averaging 8.7 more points than its league opponents.
Before the conference schedule started, VCU held a +19.2 scoring margin, which has dwindled down to +14.9 since the league started. In conference play the Rams are averaging just 6.8 more points more per game than their opponents.
“That’s the thing about this conference,” VCU point guard Darius Theus said. “Anything can happen on any given night and that’s the special thing about the A-10 is there’s a lot of great teams.”
The unpredictable nature of the Atlantic 10 is a small slice of the puzzling, yet intriguing parity that is sweeping through college hoops conferences this season.
No team in the country has been overwhelming in any sense of the word, which could have teams that have flown under the radar thinking of making a run.
“I think a lot of teams feel that way,” VCU junior guard Rob Brandenberg said. “First things first you have to take care of business in conference and get in the tournament so we’re not really focused on that but at the same time this is the first year where I can recall there really isn’t a Kentucky or a team with John Wall and all those freshman phenoms.
“I think a lot of teams feel like this is their year, but I think we’ve just got to stay focused on A-10 play and we’ll take care of business when that comes.”
VCU fell victim of back-to-back losses to Richmond and La Salle two weeks ago that not only ended its 13-game winning streak, but also stripped of its No. 19 national ranking. The Rams ended the two-game slide by winning back-to-back games against Rhode Island and Fordham.
“You’ve got to take everyone seriously and understand that you’re going to get their best shot,” Brandenberg said. “And if you’re not ready to play you can take a loss any night.”