College basketball has changed dramatically over the years and I don't mean just the school uniforms. When a team like Illinois scheduled a game with a mid-level opponent it was a sure 20-point win. A lot of people felt these were the games you could work on some things, play your younger players and make that non-conference record look a little better.
Those days are long gone. Looking at a few Big Ten / Big 12 games this season I would say if the NCAA wanted parity - it got it. Let's start last Saturday when the Fighting Illini played Illinois State in Champaign and barely got out alive, beating the Redbirds 80-73 in overtime. Here are a few other games:
Michigan 60 - Butler 61
Kansas 61 - Nevada 75
Missouri 67 - Belmont 71
Purdue (who beat Duke 78-68) lost to SMU at home 60-59
Iowa 66 - UNI 77
Those are just a few games that fifteen to twenty years ago may have been blowouts. Why the change? Here's my take on the 2000 brand of college hoops.
First: Competitive basketball starts in the 5th or 6th grade. I don't know about you, but when I played 6th grade basketball I played 12 games a season. My son is now in 6th grade, it' s January, and he's played 22 games and traveled to one of the nation's hot beds to play hoops (Peoria). In addition, we are planning a trip to Chicago next month. More kids are being exposed to playing better basketball; therefore the players get the chance to better their games. I'm not the only person that has read an article somewhere that talks about the "next LaBron James" and he's in 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. It happens all the time whether we like it or not.
Second: There are more freshman playing at the varsity level than in years past, which means kids are developing their games at a faster pace. Usually if a kid plays varsity basketball as a freshman he's pretty good and the scouts will know about him, especially if his high school team plays summer ball. Did I say summer ball? Well, let's take a look at that. Most Illinois teams play between 60 and 70 games a summer now, and that's with their school team, not their AAU team.
Third: Some college coaches are overlooking kids because they may not be ranked in the Top 50, and it's easy to miss that diamond-in-the-rough. Let's take a look at a couple kids that were not the "top" players coming out of high school but have made names for themselves. Deron Williams was, at best, a Top 75 recruit. Sean Dockery of Duke was a McDonald's AA. You tell me which kid you would rather have on your team right now. Another kid, James Augustine, is a player that currently may be the best big man in the Big Ten. Or would you rather have Michael Thompson, another McDonald's AA, who played 2 minutes a game for Duke and is currently looking for another school? Ask yourself how anyone can say one kid is ranked #75 and someone else is #80. What determines that? My point is that a good coach will find the best player regardless of his ranking. I know for a fact that forward Marcus Arnold of Illinois State (who was 11-17 from the field and finished with 23 points) and guard Gregg Alexander (who finished 5-10 with 14 points) could play at Illinois. Power forward Najeeb Echols started his career with Missouri. I believe he would be starting right now had he come to Illinois right out of high school.
Because of the few points I mentioned, college basketball will continue to have big upsets, and teams will have to play hard every night to win. Truthfully, that's not all bad because it makes the best sport even better.