NCAA Tournament puts level of parity on display… or lack thereof

Parity. The word has both a positive and negative cognitation with it in sports. Most hardcore fans of the professional sports level hate it (because their teams’ success varies much more) while fans of sports at the college level usually love it (because it creates more unpredictability and drama). Lately, the little six letter word has been thrown around consistently to describe college basketball and it really has been overblown.

The top analysts of college basketball at ESPN or Sports Illustrated or CBS, etc. want to anoint men’s college basketball as the world’s best, most exciting sport because there’s so much parity. While there is parity, it’s in a spot where you would least want it — at the bottom. And this fact wasn’t shown any clearer than over this past weekend during the NCAA Tournament.

After the first weekend of games, the Sweet Sixteen teams included just one seed that could be called non-“chalk” and that is to say outside of form. That would be the 12th seeded Arizona Wildcats which is also telling in that no “mid-major” teams advanced. With Arizona being your only non-chalk team, it shows just how concentrated the talent is in college basketball. Arizona just last week extended their NCAA Tournament streak to 24 straight seasons. That school is no darkhorse, quite the contrary. After losing longtime head coach Lute Olson to retirement due to health reasons, the youthful Wildcats endured a largely uninspired and inconsistent season that saw them put up a disappointing 9-9 Pac-10 record.

But Arizona is a team that features three potential NBA prospects on its starting five. This is no slouch of a team. For them to reach the sweet sixteen is certainly no shocker. And thus, neither were any of the teams who reached the second weekend of play.

And that’s the problem. For a sport that is touted for its “parity”, this year’s tournament did an excellent job to beg the differ. In all but the Arizona bracket (Midwest), the 1, 2, 3, 4 seeds all advanced according to form (note: in the West, the 5 seed Purdue advanced ahead of 4 seed Washington but were the favored team anyways). It was the first year in which the top three seeds in each bracket went 24-0 over the first weekend. Let me say that again, the first time in HISTORY.

In fact, if you look at the field of the NCAA Tournament over the past 5-10 years, every year the bids given to the smaller conferences that many analysts like to call “mid-major” have been decreasing. It’s not because the selection committee just doesn’t want to see small schools in the tournament, why would they? That’s what makes the tournament so dramatic. No, the reason is that the smaller conferences have been getting worse, not better. There are a number of theories as to why, but the reason really isn’t important. What is important is how it is perceived.

Unlike what many fans of the sport will like to have you know, the parity in college basketball isn’t in the middle or at the top, it is concentrated at the bottom.

There are a lot of bad teams in college basketball. Of the 300 and some odd division 1 institutions, there are probably 200ish that aren’t any good at all from year-to-year. Those schools can be graded within one or two points from each other on a scale of 1-10. Next, there’s about 40 teams that are simply poor. Not extremely bad like the bottom 200, but not any good like the top 65 or so. These are your cellar dwellers in the major conferences. Teams like Iowa St., DePaul, North Carolina St. and Georgia this year just to give a sample. They are squads that beat up on the bottom 200 but can’t buy a win against the top 65 or so.

Then there’s about 45 teams that are all within a point or two of each other in ability as what I would call “average teams”. These are your come-and-go squads that you see every year. Just replace the name on the front of the jersey with one of a previous year and it’s the same team, same level of play. These teams will make the tournament but have no more a shot of reaching the sweet sixteen (thus winning two games) than O.J. Simpson had of escaping jail time in his armed robbery trial. That was a railroad if I’ve ever seen one… but, I digress.

After that you have about 15 teams this year (and it varies every year) of what I would simply describe as “good” teams. These are your sweet sixteen level squads that play good basketball. But they are also no more capable of reaching the Final Four than I am of beating Anderson Silva in a fight. Trust me, that would be a scary proposition.

And finally, you have five “elite” level teams that are generally a head clear of the 15 teams below them. This year there is five, last year there was maybe seven with two being a clear notch above the other five. These teams are you’re only real challengers for the Final Four and National Championship given no extenuation circumstances intervening (i.e. health, suspension, coaching or officiating, etc.).

So for the word parity to be thrown around the amount of “good” teams needs to be closer to that of the “average” number of 45. In fact, if those two levels were merged somewhat and there was maybe 40 really “good” teams and 50 “average” (taking away from the 40+ poor) and leaving about 10-15 elite teams that would be quality parity for the sport.

What we have now is not parity, it is disparity. Whereas the bad teams stay bad, the average stay average and the elite stay elite. I’m not here to say whether that is bad or good, I’m simply arguing the common misconception of men’s basketball being filled with parity.

If I had to say, I would argue that it’s a bad thing for college basketball that there isn’t that parity because at the college level it is nice to see more teams continually involved in its most glamorous and entertaining event.

As for why, I would venture to guess that it has to do with a combination of scholarship limits, NBA draft rules and the tendency for the best players to go to the best programs of the time. But that is a post for another time.

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