The sight of a bunch of wild college basketball fans stampeding onto the hardwood in celebration has almost become a defining image of the sport this season.
Unranked Clemson knocked off No. 3 Duke 79-72 on Tuesday, prompting a deserved court charge by the home fans at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Just three days prior, the Tigers beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill for the first time in program history after losing the previous 59 tries.
That’s two blue-bloods slain in one week for Clemson. Not bad for a team that was picked by the media to finish 11th in the ACC and entered January with a 6-7 record.
Clemson head coach Brad Brownell didn’t reveal any magic formula or bag of tricks his team used to pull the upset. It was just simple execution and capturing the energy of the moment.
“Going into the game with post momentum and feeling good about yourself is important and just kind of getting off to a great start and playing with momentum in front of a home crowd, that helps,” Brownell said.
Clemson’s victory is another on an ever-growing list of upsets.
Twelve AP top-five teams have already lost to unranked opponents this season (another one bit the dust on Wednesday with No. 4 Auburn falling to Alabama). Only six such upsets happened all last season.
It’s been a game of musical chairs at the top level of the sport. Six different teams have held the No. 1 spot in the rankings already. Three of those No. 1 squads lost to unranked foes.
Things reached peak bizarre when preseason No. 1 Michigan State was blasted by an unranked Purdue team 71-42 on Sunday.
And as for that so-called blue-blood North Carolina team? It’s taken a nosedive to an 8-8 record.
It seems no one is safe, not even college basketball royalty.
So why are all these seemingly elite teams struggling? And how long will this last?
“We might not see college basketball be as entertaining as we saw [in years past],” said Corey Evans, a national college basketball analyst for Rivals.com. "We are definitely in the middle of change right now. It’s very, very fluid with what’s going on with the recruiting world, with the NBA world.”
This year’s recruiting class demonstrates the sport’s changing landscape.
Memphis center James Wiseman was the top recruit in this year’s class, per Rivals, but he decided to leave the program to focus on NBA draft preparation after playing just three games. He made the decision after being caught up in a violation for receiving improper benefits from his coach.
Other coveted high school prospects are choosing different routes to the NBA.
R.J. Hampton was Rivals’ sixth-ranked player in last year’s class but he opted to play professional ball in New Zealand for a year, with plans to enter the 2020 NBA draft.
Hampton likely won’t be the last blue-chip recruit who will circumvent the college game en route to the pros. It remains to be seen if this will become a bigger trend.
The result is a watered-down talent pool and a whole lot of parity.
“There’s been no real transcendent talent. … None of those kind of guys,” Evans said. “And then also, even those type of elite prospects, they weren’t all going to the blue-bloods. They were going to Washington, they were going to Georgia, they were going to Memphis.”
But while the top-level talent has taken a step back, Brownell points out the gap between five-star players and the rest is shrinking. He credits the development of high-level AAU leagues and travel ball teams for high school players.
“There are more better players in college basketball than ever,” Brownell said. “There’s more depth in terms of quality of play and that why I think there’s more guys on mid-major rosters that can play high-major basketball.”
Not only that, but teams filled with non-blue-chip talent tend to be more experienced because those players stick around for a few years before jumping to the NBA.
Clemson is a prime example of that. In the win over Duke, the team’s leading scorers were Aamir Simms, a junior, and Tevin Mack, a senior transfer.
Those two outdueled Duke’s five-star freshman Vernon Carey.
“Experience matters,” Brownell said.
On the surface, all this parity sounds like a win for fans. The NCAA tournament should be wide open this season. That’s good, right?
But the reality is that’s only a positive for hardcore fans.
“But for the casual fan that wants the high-flying athlete or the elite-level guy or the typical blue-blood program, not as much [of interest],” Evans said.
Upsets are fun in the moment, but the games don’t provide the same entertainment value without recognizable names wearing recognizable jerseys.
Like it or not though, this looks to be the new reality in college basketball. But hey, at least we get to see more court charges.
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