Ron Wellman looks around at college basketball and sees balance. He sees some things he expected, and lots of things he didn’t. He sees nobody dominant, but many teams capable. He sees the line of candidates for March stretching from sea to shining sea.
And then he thinks of what a challenge it will be one day soon, when it comes time for the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Committee that he chairs to put together a tournament bracket.
“Oh gosh, a challenge is putting it mildly,” he said this week. “We’re going to have a yeoman’s task, to not only select the right teams but to seed them correctly. The depth of really good teams this year is unlike anything that I have seen.”Wellman looks at the records. The list of unbeatens is down to three, but there were 36 more teams with three or fewer loses at the close of business Tuesday.
“If you were to try today to do the top four teams, or the top eight teams, or the top 12 teams, there would be controversy associated with all of those decisions. Maybe more than for a number of years,” he said.
He sees that even those currently in the penthouse have struggled to stay there. No. 1 Arizona has had five games decided by six or fewer points, including Drexel.
No. 2 Syracuse just had to hustle to get past 5-12 Boston College. No. 3 Wisconsin lost for the first time on Tuesday, to an Indiana program it had beaten 12 consecutive times. No. 4 Michigan State has had to survive back-to-back overtimes. Ohio State started 15-0, then lost two in a row.
“Even the undefeated teams are having great games, and sometimes great games against unanticipated teams, which again shows the competitiveness of college basketball,” Wellman said. “There isn’t a team I don’t think who has emerged as the clear No. 1 team in the country. We have a number teams that would be potential No. 1s, and probably an equal number of teams that are immediately after those five or six teams.”
He sees the curves this season has been taking. He remembers back to the glitzy November night in Chicago; Duke vs. Kansas and Kentucky vs. Michigan State. The elite of the elite in the polls. By this week, Michigan State was the only one of the four still in the top 10.
“I think everybody at that doubleheader was saying, this could be the Final Fur right here,” Wellman said. “You wonder, where did they go? But I will say a couple of those teams could emerge again if they continue to improve.”
He looks at the AP rankings and can notice something odd about the league he knows so well, as Wake Forest athletic director. The bigger and supposedly mightier ACC has one team -- newcomer Syracuse -- in the top 20.
“Everybody was saying at the beginning of the season that the ACC was going to be the dominant conference. But yet for many different reasons, that has not played out.”
He looks at the latest NCAA RPI ratings. Last year’s championship game duo of Louisville and Michigan, who both had several returnees? They’re Nos. 39 and 48.
Meanwhile, Wichita State and San Diego State are in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. And in the RPI, Duke is behind George Washington and barely ahead of Harvard.
“But I think that has been a trend in college basketball the last few years,” Wellman said. “Now there may be a team or two that emerges over the next couple of months that really separate themselves from the others. But I do anticipate that we’re going to have 12 to 18 teams that are very competitive toward the end of the season.”
Wellman has liked what he has seen -- to a point -- from teams more arduous better non-conference schedules.
“I think we’re making progress, but I don’t know that we are where we ultimately want to be or need to be. But I do think there’s a recognition of the importance of scheduling the right teams at the right places. More and more coaches are recognizing the importance of building the right schedule that is going to attract the attention they want from the basketball committee.”
And he has liked what he has seen in the way coaches, players and officials have acclimated themselves to the new emphasis on cutting down defensive contact.
“I see much more freedom of movement by the player, much more dribble penetration. I see our fives, our posts, able to maneuver with the ball much more effectively than in the past. It’s not the physical game that it had evolved to.”
But it is still the unpredictable game. Good for those in the stands, possibly tough for those in the committee room in a few weeks.
“I think it’s going to be a very difficult and challenging process as we go forward, if everything remains the same,” Wellman said.
About the only thing that stays the same in college basketball is the fact that nothing stays the same.