VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – If you’ve been on a mission to Mars with Matt Damon for a year or two and just returned to earth, welcome back.
Glad you made it home safely.
However, MAS must warn you: you won’t recognize the current landscape of U.S. collegiate basketball.
You would swear you landed on the wrong planet.
Suffice to say, It has NOT been business as usual in American college hoops this season.
For starters, a 30-second clock has been implemented.
And stricter rules regarding contact with ball handlers, officially known as the “freedom of movement initiative,” are now in place.
Result: scoring is up.
10 points per game.
Fewer snooze-fests with scores in the 50s and low 60s now.
But the shooting is still awful.
More athletic, today’s collegians definitely are. But sharpshooters are few and far between.
Scores are higher only because teams are forced to hoist up more attempts.
So, thank the Law of Averages, not improved marksmanship for higher scores.
But, hey, more points are more points. Beggars can’t be choosers.
And, Matt’s bud, when you see the Top 25 rankings, you’d swear you’ve accidentally stumbled on the women’s collegiate gymnastics poll instead.
Some of this season’s nationally ranked outfits are not just foreign, they’re downright extraterrestrial to many college hoop heads.
Do the names Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Providence, Iowa and Clemson ring a bell?
MAS thought not.
All had formerly been run of the mill at best for a long time. For much of this season, though, they’ve been knocking off bigger names to earn poll slots.
And how about Monmouth?
Dem little guys from Joisey (New Jersey) started March Madness three months early with shocking upsets over big names Notre Dame, Georgetown, UCLA and Southern Cal, all on the road.
This campaign, you had to go pretty far down the list of nationally ranked teams to find, if at all, many heretofore upper echelon poll cloggers like Duke, Wisconsin, Georgetown, Syracuse and numerous others.
Even Kentucky has been slumming it in the rankings.
At this stage a year ago, the Wildcats were shooting for the first wire-to-wire unbeaten NCAA season since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers turned the trick.
This campaign finds the Wildcats already saddled with SEVEN defeats and in a tight conference title race with a slew of improved SEC ball clubs that had previously warranted Seven Dwarf status.
Kentucky coach John Calipari needn’t worry about a bunch of one-and-doners jumping ship for the NBA after this campaign — like the four that were first-round NBA Draft picks last year.
And then there’s Duke.
One midseason stretch saw the Blue Devils lose four of five contests and fall out of the rankings altogether for the first time in EIGHT years.
But at least the Dookies have fought their way back into the Top 25 (currently at No. 15 in the latest poll( and should still have a shot at defending their NCAA title.
The same can’t be said for Wisconsin, coming off two straight Final Fours and a championship game loss to the Blue Devils last campaign.
The Badgers, minus their longtime coach Bo Ryan who retired early in the season, currently have 10 losses.
Wisconsin’s streak of 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances could very well come to an end.
Even Kansas has struggled.
After suffering three early season losses in the suddenly deep and tough Big 12, the Jayhawks plunged in the rankings.
KU needed a recent hot streak to establish its present slim lead in its league title race over three much-improved foes, including resurgent West Virginia.
KU will have to go to the final weekend before it can claim its 12th straight regular-season conference crown, something the Jayhawks usually clinch much earlier.
Plus, many perennial midmajor tournament clubs, like Gonzaga, Butler, San Diego State and Wichita State, have struggled out of league and may end up needing to win their conference tourney titles to make it to the Big Dance this year.
For every big name still to be found in the rankings there is also a former power missing from them.
And forget about automatically residing in the high rent district of the Top 25.
For much of this season, numerous biggies like Michigan State and Arizona learned to be thankful, if not content, that they at least made the cut.
Instead, occupying upper poll perches for long stretches have been the previously mentioned upstarts — the Oklahomas, Providences and Iowas of the college hardwood world.
Many had not seen that rarified air for decades, if at all.
No. 1 for a time this season, Oklahoma hadn’t seen the top five since the mid-1980s when All-American Wayman Tisdale was slithering his way to slick lefty buckets.
This season the Sooners boast another Wooden Award (Outstanding College Player of the Year) candidate in smooth Buddy Hield.
An ever-cheerful, sharpshooting Bahamian, Hield is second in the nation in scoring at 25.4 points per contest.
Buddy’s hitting over 50 percent of his 3-point attempts and knocking down 90 percent of his free throws.
Can you say Steph Curry 2.0?
Providence hadn’t been in the Top 10 since 1987, back when “Billy The Kid” Donovan was raining bombs down on foes from beyond the newly instituted 3-point line for the Final Four Friars and their young whippersnapper coach Rick Pitino.
And talk about your droughtbusters. Iowa has a chance at its first Big 10 title in 27 years.
If you embarked on your Mars sojourn within the last four years, though, you may remember a few of this season’s top players.
For a change, most of the candidates for the Wooden (five of the top six) are SENIORS. So, you may have had a glimpse of them early in their careers prior to your departure.
Each has a mature, polished game, honed by four years of development at the top collegiate level.
They have chosen NOT to enter the pro ranks as talented works-in-progress like so many frosh in recent years.
And subsequently are more NBA-ready.
All this adds up to an NCAA tournament you might not recognize either, Mr. Martian.
In addition to the fresh faces from the “Power Conferences” mentioned, there should also be more than the usual paltry number of mid-major ball clubs cuttin’ a rug at the Big Dance this year as well.
Instead of qualifying just one or two teams, several of these loops, like the Atlantic 10, could land three or four invites.
That’s how strong their play has been.
So take off your old Houston Astrodome groundskeeper-type headgear and relax.
Fear not, you’ve landed on the correct basketball planet.
And while it may not be as recognizable, trust MAS, it’s a much more interesting college hoop world than the one you left.
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