If there's one thing that's certain about this college basketball season, it's that there are "no great teams this season." You've heard it, I've heard it, we've all heard it to the point where we can repeat it to one another at the start of any discussion on March Madness and the NCAA tournament. Well, we say, there are no great teams in this bracket, so it's wide open. Anything can happen.
And, truth be known, I understand completely why this staple of conventional wisdom has arisen. Last season was different in two key respects. First, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like a great team because they ran the table in a major conference, something that had not been done in eight seasons. Second, no other team looked like a natural and fitting rival for co-greatness status. Certainly there were very good teams with great records one season ago -- the Syracuse Orange come to mind -- but for better or worse, the Wildcats separated themselves from the rest of the field in our eyes and were declared the consensus NCAA tournament favorite in advance. UK was "the" great team.
That is not the case this season. This season's top teams all have looked great at times, but at other times they've looked very normal. Gonzaga did run the table, but that was in the relatively weak West Coast Conference, and anyway, the Bulldogs did lose by 11 at home to Illinois. Louisville suffered through a three-game losing streak in January. Indiana lost not one but two home games, to Wisconsin and Ohio State, the latter on senior night. And we all remember Duke getting blown off the floor in the Blue Devils' road game at Miami. These are not the behaviors we associate with great teams.
But what if there really is a great team this season, after all? What about that sound byte you hear every time you watch a Duke game? The Blue Devils are undefeated this season when Ryan Kelly is in the lineup. The 6-foot-11 senior was sidelined for six weeks in January and February with a foot injury, but in games where Kelly's been available, Mike Krzyzewski's team is 18-0.
That's not to say Duke still would be undefeated heading into its conference tournament (ACC tourney play begins Thursday on ESPNU) if Kelly had been available all season. Reaching mid-March with a zero in the loss column is an exceedingly rare feat. Then again, eventual national champion Kentucky was bestowed with the "great team" label even though the Wildcats lost early last season at Indiana. Would the Blue Devils enjoy a similar status this season if only they'd been healthy?