You know when the unpredictability, the fickleness... the democratic nature of college basketball and the NCAA Tournament always looks good?
In December, when the College Football Playoff names its four teams. The invitation list for 2020 includes Alabama... Clemson... Ohio State... wait a second. Haven’t we seen this movie before?
College football has excitement, color, and is often played on an epic scale. What it doesn’t have is variety at the top. In that category, the NCAA Tournament wins by a couple of touchdowns. Or by 20 points, whichever sport you prefer. This being year 7 for the CFP — the sport’s Final Four — let’s put it next to the past seven editions of the basketball Final Four for a little comparison.
Only 11 football programs have made the playoffs in those seven years.
Twenty-one different teams have appeared in the past seven basketball Final Fours. The three most recent Final Fours had 12 different schools, four of whom had never been there before.
Alabama and Clemson have each been in six of the seven CFPs. Of the 28 spots available in those seven years, Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma — tradition’s upper crust — have taken 20 of them.
The most any team has appeared in the past seven basketball Final Fours is twice. Duke and Kentucky — the game’s royal couple — haven’t been there in five years.
The power-5 conferences are 28-for-28 in CFP invitations.
The past seven basketball Final Fours? Loyola of Chicago, Wichita State, Gonzaga... and Villanova, who won two national championships, but didn’t get past the first weekend in the other five tournaments.
Football’s Selection Sunday in December seems fairly predictable in August. This year’s CFP quartet were ranked Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 10 in the Associated Press preseason poll. Last season’s foursome were Nos. 1, 4, 5 and 6. In the first CFP in 2014, the four were preseason Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 5. Not much movement during the regular season in any of that. Matter of fact, the lowest preseason ranked team to ever make the CFP was No. 19 Oklahoma in 2015.
Try picking the Final Four in March from the first poll in November. Good luck. Since 2013, six teams unranked in the preseason showed up in the Final Four. The most recent national runner-up — Texas Tech — wasn’t even in the top-40, drawing fewer preseason votes than Buffalo. In the 2019 Final Four, here’s how many of the preseason top four teams made it: Nobody.
College football, then, has its grandeur and its relentlessly reliable elite. College basketball has its tendency to occasionally knock over the table of conventional wisdom, and present the unlikeliest of feats, by the big names and not so big.
So it seems this regular season, too. Just look at the past three days.
Northwestern crunched No. 4 Michigan State by 14 points. The Wildcats hadn’t beaten an Associated Press top-5 team since 1979. That was Michigan State, too, led by a rather tall and skilled guard named Magic Johnson.
Rutgers went 6-0 by edging Illinois in a top-25 showdown. The last time the Scarlet Knights won one of those was 1976. They’re now charging up the rankings, this team that hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament in 30 years.
Xavier beat Marquette on a 3-pointer as time expired to remain unbeaten. The same Xavier team that won against Bradley in the final four seconds, came from 12 back to win by three against Toledo and overcame Eastern Kentucky in overtime despite 25 turnovers. That 8-0 record has a lot of drama.
Drake went 8-0, too. The Bulldogs haven’t been there in a half-century. Balance seems to be their strength. They’re putting up 86 points a game, with nobody averaging 14 points or 24 minutes.
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Gonzaga out-raced Iowa 99-88, when fortunes from the 3-point line flip-flopped. Having made only 16 from there the first three wins, the Zags buried 13 in this one game. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes — who came in 32nd in the nation in 3-point shooting — went only 4-or-22. It happens.
North Carolina rallied past Kentucky, making the Wildcats 1-5 for the first time since the Calvin Coolidge administration in the 1920s.
Dayton edged Mississippi 65-62, the Flyers moving to 4-1 after five games decided by 3, 2, 6, 3 in a couple of overtimes, and 3. Dayton has seen 47 lead changes this season.
Stanford beat Arizona 78-75, after losing 20 in a row to the Wildcats.
Louisville, down to eight scholarship players because of injuries and virus protocol, looked up at the scoreboard after one half and trailed Wisconsin 44-18. It was the largest halftime deficit in school history. It ended 85-48, the Cardinals’ worst defeat since 1956.
Washington State is the Pac-12’s last unbeaten at 6-0, and in its most recent game had a most unusual lineup. Five starters from five different countries; USA, Australia, Nigeria, North Macedonia and Ukraine. Their nickname might as well be the Washington State United Nations.
Arkansas is 7-0 and went into the weekend with six players averaging 9.8 points or more. Five of them weren’t playing in the program last season. That includes California transfer Connor Vanover, who is 7'3" and not to be confused with his older twin brothers Brandon or Justin, who are 7'0" and 7'1". Their mother Robyn once led the Arkansas women in blocked shots for three seasons. A lot of tall beds in the Vanover house.
UCF wiped out a batch of Florida State winning streaks with one swoop — ending the Seminoles’ home courter at 27, its consecutive games won in the state of Florida at 31 and its non-conference home-court victory run at 41. The Knights did it by hitting 23 of 26 free throws, but then, they are the second-best team in the nation from the line. UCF was picked to finish eighth in the American conference.
Georgia beat Cincinnati to go 6-0, its best start since the 1982-83 season. That year rings a bell in Athens because the Bulldogs went to the Final Four.
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Also, know where you can find all manners of storylines? The Southern Conference.
Chattanooga is 8-0, which it hasn't been in 47 years.
The Citadel is 6-0, its best start since 1919-20. No need to rain on the Bulldogs’ parade by mentioning only two of the six opponents so far were Division I. Anyway, they’re firing away as usual, leading the nation with 14.8 3-pointers a game, taking 20 more shots from beyond the arc than they have from inside.
Western Carolina is 7-2. Four of those victories went overtime. There have been 43 OT games in the nation so far this season, and the Catamounts have been involved in 9.3 percent of them.
Yeah, it can be a screwball, uneven world out there in college basketball. Now, and in March. Meanwhile, football travels a very familiar route, with much buzz and many thrills, but few surprises.