Are two wild weeks of upsets proof that parity reigns in college basketball this season?

Today – Monday, Feb. 6 – feels like college basketball. It just does.

Maybe it’s the unusually warm temperatures around the country that emit an aura of March. Maybe it’s the subsiding furor of a Super Bowl for the ages. Maybe it’s the gravity of the American sporting public’s shifting gaze.

An unforgettable year of sports came full circle Sunday night, back to where all the madness began 10 months ago, at NRG Stadium in Houston. A mere 20 yards away from the spot from which Kris Jenkins elevated for the most memorable shot in Final Four history, Julian Edelman lunged to secure arguably the greatest catch in Super Bowl history. The poetry was befitting of a year of championships as poetic as any.

And now the cycle continues, back to the sport with which it began, and back to a sport that has been as mad as ever in recent weeks with the spotlight still off.

The last 12 days of college basketball have brought 16 losses by top-10 teams. Fifteen of those 16 were upsets. Eleven were to unranked opponents. Tuesday, Jan. 24 featured slayings of No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 for the first time since 1979.

Are upsets like Kansas State’s over No. 2 Baylor signs that college basketball’s bluebloods are vulnerable? (Getty)
Are upsets like Kansas State’s over No. 2 Baylor signs that college basketball’s bluebloods are vulnerable? (Getty)

That week delivered nine losses by top-10 teams. This past Saturday alone brought six. Syracuse’s second-half comeback against No. 9 Virginia evoked last year’s Elite Eight. No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Kansas and No. 7 West Virginia all fell to unranked Big 12 foes at home. No. 5 Arizona flopped on the road. No. 8 Kentucky dropped its third game in four attempts.

Every upset of a national title favorite, every identified weakness, every hole poked and every flaw exposed contributed to that feeling on this early-February Monday. Every one of them brought college basketball closer together. The gap between the slayers and the slain shrunk. The expectation of further madness, and especially March Madness, pervades. And parity — the defining characteristic around which the ethos of college basketball is built — reigns … right?

In some sense, yes. Parity always seems to reign in college basketball, even if the best teams often win between 80 and 90 percent of their games, because the few times they don’t win are celebrated. The sport feeds and thrives off the mere possibility of unexpected results. Parity, or some semblance of it, is necessary.

Another factor is the structure of the schedule, which pits top teams against other top teams during the portion of the season that draws the most interest. During January and February, those same teams win closer to 70 percent of their games. And the NCAA tournament, or course, regularly delivers shockers.

But is equality more prevalent than usual this season? Do the past two weeks tell of a campaign more unpredictable than those past?

Not necessarily. Through six weeks of conference play, top-10 teams have lost 31 games. That pace lags behind last season, which saw the AP top 10 lose 58 times over the 10 weeks of conference play, and 34 times through the first six weeks. No 12-day stretch a year ago gave us anything quite like this most recent string of upsets, but college basketball isn’t fundamentally more egalitarian in 2016-17.

An even better representation of parity, or a lack thereof, is adjusted per possession numbers. The average adjusted efficiency margin of KenPom’s current top 10 is the second highest its been since 2009-10; the average of the current top 20 is the highest. And, controlling for one or two outliers, the average adjusted margin of teams ranked No. 3 through 20 is also the highest in that time period.

The measure — which essentially attempts to quantify how many points better a given team is than an average opponent over 100 possessions — is imperfect in this instance, because it compares full-season (pre-NCAA tournament) data to those of an incomplete season. But it more or less tells us that the best teams this season are generally better, relative to their peers, than the best teams of seasons past.

The average margin estimates a given team’s strength compared to the average Division I team. Numbers in red highlight seasons in which the top teams were better, and therefore seasons in which there was less parity. Numbers in blue represent the opposite. (Henry Bushnell)
The average margin estimates a given team’s strength compared to the average Division I team. Numbers in red highlight seasons in which the top teams were better, and therefore seasons in which there was less parity. Numbers in blue represent the opposite. (Henry Bushnell)

The numbers jibe with intuition too. There’s a somewhat definitive top 20 at the moment. Five editions of our power rankings, which rank the nation’s 20 best teams, have included only 22 teams since the first edition in early January. In other words, only two teams — South Carolina and Cincinnati — outside the top 20 entering January leapt into the rankings over the first month of conference play.

In other words, the tangle below college basketball’s upper tiers is as messy as ever.

Within that mess lies a portion of the beauty of college basketball in 2016-17. It’s not that middle-tier postseason teams are on par with the elites; it’s that nobody has any clue what many of those middle-tier teams are capable of. Nobody has any clue when or from whom the upsets will come.

There may not be more parity than usual, but there are certain pockets of extreme parity that have helped make the season what it’s been.

In the ACC, Miami, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Clemson and Wake Forest can’t seem to decide who among them wants to emerge from the muck of the NCAA tournament bubble. There’s a battle at the top of the conference too, with six teams at some point over the past month appearing capable of winning a regular season title.

In the Big 12, Iowa State, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have beaten each other up. All look like tournament teams, and four of the five have dealt losses to one of the conference’s top three, but they’ve been as frustrating as they’ve looked potent.

In the Big East behind Villanova, four teams — Xavier, Butler, Creighton and Marquette — have oscillated between contenders and faux challengers.

And in the Big Ten, confusion and mediocrity magnify each other.

So no, parity has not reigned so far. The bluebloods appear to be as strong as ever. But if the last two weeks are any indication, college basketball’s upper-middle class has begun to figure things out. If it has, perhaps the turbulence at the top of the rankings will become a trend, and parity will combine with the strength of the ruling class to make the final two months of the season ones to remember.