Amid changes to NCAA, powers in college basketball remain in place, coaches say

Speaking at the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation College Basketball Tip-Off, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said the Terps should be competitive in the Big Ten but will have to cope with a lot of new rules. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

The landscape in college sports has changed dramatically in recent years, almost to a point where veteran men's basketball coaches such as Villanova's Jay Wright sometimes forget what the old days were like.

Teams play in different conferences. Players come in for summer workouts. Practice starts in late September, not Oct. 15.


What hasn't changed much, however, are the long-standing powers still at the top of the heap.

That's good news for Wright, who took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 2009 and has been to the NCAA tournament nine times in the past 10 seasons. Villanova is expected to contend again, ranked among the nation's top 15 teams in most preseason polls.

Wright thinks two traditional powerhouses, Kentucky and Arizona, "have a chance to be dominant," while Wisconsin, which reached the Final Four last season, could be back in contention again.

"To me, those three can be separated from the field a little bit," Wright said during a downtown Baltimore college basketball luncheon Friday that benefited the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

"All three of them have experience. Usually, in college basketball now, the most talented teams are young. Those teams have veterans. That's probably one of the most experienced Kentucky teams we've seen in a while."

ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who emceed Friday's event, added his alma mater, Duke, to the mix of title favorites this season.

"Kentucky's got more talent, but I'm not sure they've got more talent, 1 to 10, than anybody," Bilas said. "I think Duke has more talent 1 to 6, because they've got the No. 1 pick in the draft [Jahlil Okafor] and Wisconsin's got the oldest, most established talent. Kansas will be better than last year, and they lost the No. 1 and [No.] 3 pick in the draft."

Bilas said he has heard about the existence of greater parity in college basketball, but added that in "some years, all the big shots win and there are very few upsets. And some years, there are crazy upsets, like last year, with UConn winning it. The history books will say that a [No.] 7 [seed] and an 8 played for the national championship, but Kentucky was no 8 and everybody knew it. Kentucky was a 3."

Compared with the early to mid-1980s, when Bilas played at Duke, there is more of a chance "that someone can pull off something crazy now because the teams are younger," he said. Bilas was quick to add that "the number of upsets are pretty much the same."

Longtime Maryland coach Gary Williams, who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in August, said having more talent "doesn't guarantee anything."

Bilas said a team that is unranked in the preseason can find its way into the national spotlight come March.

"There's somebody that, because of a sophomore that got way better into his junior year or a freshman who got way better as a sophomore who you didn't expect to come back, you'll see somebody emerge," he said. "Gonzaga will be way better than they've been in awhile. Harvard will be really good."

Williams, who joined Maryland men's coach Mark Turgeon, Temple coach Fran Dunphy and Siena coach Jimmy Patsos on the stage during Friday's luncheon, said he believes there are now more teams capable of winning a national championship.

"Kids travel so much and they're so sophisticated [in terms of basketball]. Travel used to be a big deal when you were a freshman or a sophomore," Williams said. "Just walk in there and play. They're much more advanced than they were 20, 25 years ago."


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