Originally Published: December 31, 2012

If There's No Dominant Team, So What?

By Myron Medcalf

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Over the course of 40 minutes on Saturday, Louisville made its case as the nation's best team.

It's not the only school with an argument, though. In the equitable landscape of 2012-13, multiple teams deserve consideration. Duke, Arizona, Michigan, Indiana and Kansas are in the conversation, too.

But there are far more Davids than Goliaths this season. That's why UCLA can lose to Cal Poly but beat Missouri; why Baylor can lose to Charleston but win at Rupp Arena; why Texas can lose to Chaminade but beat North Carolina.

Louisville's nonconference resumé exemplifies the parity that's defined the first two months of the season. In an 80-77 victory, the Cardinals outplayed a talented, yet inexperienced, Kentucky team that fought as hard as any previous opponent on UL's slate.

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Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsRick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals squad has the makings of a great team, but is far from flawless.

The Cards' only loss came against current No. 1 Duke in the Battle 4 Atlantis tourney last month, but they didn't have the services of Gorgui Dieng, who suffered a wrist injury that kept him out of action for a month. But Louisville won six in a row without him and when complete, few programs offer a comparable assembly that's as gritty and effective as Rick Pitino's squad (first in adjusted defensive efficiency, 17th in offensive efficiency).

Still, the Cards blew an 18-point lead in a narrow win over Northern Iowa. At the Yum! Center, Illinois State missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds that would've tied the game. Memphis crumbled late against Pitino's team but only after amassing a 16-point advantage. Kentucky had its chances, but its woeful free throw shooting and youth got the best of the Cats.

But even Pitino recognized that Kentucky -- much like a multitude of programs with the potential to make vast improvements between now and March -- could evolve into a potent group in the coming months.

"Quite frankly, I thought we had more talent than them because our talent is more experienced," he said after Saturday's game. "They're going to be a great team come February."

The Wildcats aren't alone.

There's been enough carnage in November and December to suggest that college basketball possesses few, if any, elite programs. It's more accurate to say that the NCAA product comprises an uncertain field. Right now, the overused "anyone can lose" mantra is probably a solid assessment of the current picture.

Multiple Division I coaches echoed this sentiment to ESPN.com over the weekend:

• Tom Crean (Indiana): "Teams I think that have the fewest weaknesses are Louisville, Kansas, Florida and Duke. I haven't watched the Big Ten much, but that will change. Arizona might be the most relentless at this point with Kansas being the most explosive. Sean Miller has his stamp all over Arizona. Syracuse is the deepest, most talented team right now."

• Dan Monson (Long Beach State): "One-and-done has made parity even greater. Just think if Kentucky did not lose anyone from last year. I think there are five to eight really good teams. Duke, Syracuse, Michigan, Ohio State, Arizona, Indiana … and another 15 who could win it all. [There is] no one out there that is a great team right now. A month from now, maybe. That is what makes March Madness."

• Frank Haith (Missouri): "It's early. I do think there is parity right now. But teams will get better throughout the year so there can become some separation, but I think there are a lot of really good teams that will get better. Early entry in the draft has given teams a chance to catch up."

• Scott Drew (Baylor): "[There is] no dominant team in my opinion. Several good teams but no dominant team. Just look at the scores and who has beaten who."

At this time last year, the eventual national champion wasn't flawless. But it was obvious that Kentucky's roster full of NBA prospects would eventually become the unanimous favorite to win the national title. North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio State, Missouri and Michigan State were all very good teams, but they were not in UK's league.

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Richard Mackson-US PresswireIt's safe to say there isn't a team this season that NBA scouts rave about like they did 2011-12 UK.

"Kentucky was really good," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They were a great team."

This year's class lacks that juggernaut. And I'm fine with that. It results in more nightly intrigue, and it creates more mystery leading up to the NCAA tournament.

A few teams will separate in league play, but probably not the way that Kentucky did last season. No team in 2012-13 has the skill and ability that John Calipari's team relied on in 2011-12.

There have been too many close calls and nailbiters among the top 10 in the first two months of the season to put any team on that pedestal.

So it still feels like an open field with a top 10 that's capable but not invincible and a fleet of up-and-comers that could rise in time to make a run in March.

"Those teams [in the top 10] have parts to be successful," Martin said. "But you still have a ways to go. You have to go through the fire to get to where you're going."

And it appears that we're on our way to another explosive March, one that could arrive without an undisputed favorite to win the national championship.


Four teams that could become contenders by March

Kentucky: On Saturday at Louisville, the Wildcats were just 11-for-23 from the free throw line and committed 10 of their 14 turnovers in a crippling 15-minute stretch. But Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein are going to make life tough on every opposing big man they face this season. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress can take over games, but they just haven't done it consistently. And Ryan Harrow has matured into the crucial leader that John Calipari needs. This group is getting better at the right time.

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Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY SportsMinnesota hasn't won an NCAA tourney game since making the 1997 Final Four. Is this finally the year?

Minnesota: Tubby Smith has one of the country's most athletic backcourts. Andre Hollins, Austin Hollins and Joe Coleman can compete with their contemporaries throughout the nation. Forward Rodney Williams (13.0 ppg) is one of three Gophers averaging double figures and Minnesota is 16th in adjusted defensive efficiency and first in offensive rebounding percentage, per Ken Pomeroy. Plus, former all-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe is working his way into the rotation a year after suffering a season-ending knee injury. The Gophers are pretty good already. They could be an even more dangerous crew two months from now.

Oklahoma State: The biggest concern for OSU is its inconsistent offense (76th in efficiency). But this young group, Kansas' greatest threat in the Big 12, could grow up once conference play begins. Freshman Phil Forte has averaged 15.6 PPG in the past three games and Marcus Smart and LeBryan Nash are studs. The most surprising development for Travis Ford is his team's defensive improvement. This team was 15-18 (7-11 in the Big 12) last season because its defense had so many holes (107th in KenPom.com's efficiency ratings). This season, however, the Pokes are fourth in efficiency. They're not the biggest or deepest team in the country, but Smart's leadership, a dynamic talent pool and legit defense could transform this team in the next couple of months.

UCLA: The Bruins' victory over Missouri on Friday legitimized the team's under-the-radar improvement during its current five-game winning streak. Now that Shabazz Muhammad is in shape (27 points against the Tigers), UCLA is a different program with a higher ceiling. The Bruins are far from great on defense, but have shown signs lately (forced 17 turnovers against Mizzou). Look, those lofty preseason projections really don't matter now. Ben Howland's veterans are finally blending with his highly touted recruits and that could lead to a late-season run that erases all of the mishaps that impeded the team's progress in November.

The Weekly Forecast

By Myron Medcalf

A quick look at the temperature of college basketball as we head into a new week:

Presidential Connections

Hot: President Obama graduated from Harvard Law School. Harvard's men's basketball squad has won five of its plast six games, including a 67-62 road win over Cal on Saturday. Georgetown, just a few miles from the White House, has won its past seven.

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Steve Dykes/USA Today SportsJust when it looked like Oregon State would go a season without an embarrassing nonconference loss, Towson came along.

Cold: On Sunday, Oregon State's Craig Robinson -- President Obama's brother-in-law -- tweeted that his team had a great practice and would be prepared for its next outing. Sure hope so, considering the last outing ended with an overtime loss to Towson at home. They didn't look ready then.

First-year Coaches

Hot: John Groce has guided Illinois to a 13-1 start as it prepares for its Big Ten opener at Purdue Wednesday. Over the weekend, Connecticut's Kevin Ollie earned a five-year, $7 million extension. The Huskies are 10-2 (neutral-site losses to New Mexico and North Carolina State are their only blemishes).

Cold: Virginia Tech won its first seven games, a run capped by a Dec. 1 victory over Oklahoma State. But James Johnson's squad has lost four of its past six, including a 97-71 shellacking at BYU over the weekend. Mississippi State's Rick Ray has been shorthanded all season, but Sunday's 59-57 home loss to Alabama A&M may have been its lowest moment on the year.

7-foot Freshmen

Hot: Baylor's Isaiah Austin finished with 20 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal in Friday's 94-87 loss at Gonzaga. He was also 2-for-5 from the 3-point line.

Cold: Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein was very active on defense in his team's 80-77 loss at Louisville on Saturday, but his 0-for-4 mark from the free throw line was costly, especially down the stretch.


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