Every year since 2011, on a Tuesday in November, four college basketball titans — Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State — have faced off at a neutral site in the marquee event of college basketball’s early season. This year’s Champions Classic was billed as the best yet. For the first time in history, the four teams playing each other on opening night were the top four teams in the Associated Press poll: No. 1 Michigan State against No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Kansas against No. 4 Duke. Kentucky and Duke won games decided by a total of 9 points, and all four teams remained ranked in the nation’s top five.
But then the chaos of college basketball’s regular season showed up. Kentucky turned around and lost to Evansville the next week. Duke dropped an overtime stunner to Stephen F. Austin before the month was over. And it started to become clear that there may be no dominant team in college basketball this season.
November always includes a handful of upsets, but this year, the highest-ranked teams are especially vulnerable. Top 10 teams lost six of 65 games against then-unranked opponents in November, their worst record since at least 2010.1 Five more such upsets have popped up2 in the first half of December, dropping top 10 teams to 72-11 (.878) against unranked foes. The first seven weeks of the AP poll have already seen five different No. 1 teams: Michigan State, then Kentucky, Duke, Louisville and now Kansas.
Most of the 11 upsets appear to be anomalous rather than preseason projections gone wrong. Evansville and Stephen F. Austin have not gone on to prove themselves as potential Cinderellas — they rank 208th and 175th, respectively, in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings as of publication. Evansville has lost to East Carolina and Stephen F. Austin to Alabama since their takedowns of Kentucky and Duke. Outside of those two games, the Purple Aces and Lumberjacks own one combined win against a top-200 team on Pomeroy’s site.3
Six weeks after Duke and Kentucky won close openers at Madison Square Garden, there’s no consensus ranking of the four powerhouses in advanced metrics, such as ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings. That’s not unusual. The Champions Classic has become just one unpredictable night in an unpredictable regular season. The 16 winning teams across the event’s two matchups have been no more likely to go to the Final Four than the 16 losers (four times each) and have not been much more successful in reaching the Sweet 16 (11 times to 10). Last season, Duke scored 118 points in Zion Williamson’s coming-out party against Kentucky but didn’t make the Final Four. In 2014, Kentucky’s platoon system overwhelmed top-ranked Kansas, 72-40, but those Wildcats lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four.
As of Monday, the top 25 teams in the AP poll had already lost a combined 36 games. Perhaps some level of parity was predictable given the clear differences between the 2018 and 2019 recruiting class. There are no super teams loaded with star freshmen this year, as Duke was last season with Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. The top three recruits according to 247sports.com’s composite ratings signed with Memphis, Georgia and Washington, and two five-star prospects (R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball) chose to play professionally abroad. The six schools with the most five-star recruits since 2005 — Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona and UCLA, in that order — signed just nine five-star recruits this year, the fewest since 2011,4 a sign that the familiar names may be less dominant this season.
Looking ahead, a college basketball landscape lacking in juggernauts would set the stage for a wild NCAA Tournament, a year after a Big Dance light on upsets. This isn’t a perfect comparison, but since the NCAA Tournament expanded in 1985, top-three seeds (top-12 teams, roughly) are 712-133 (.843) against teams seeded 7 through 16 (essentially, those outside the top 24). If the top teams are already playing down near that clip — against not just NCAA Tournament teams, but all opponents — the madness of March might last all year.