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Sophomore forward Keyshawn Bryant and the South Carolina Gamecocks have wins this basketball season over Virginia and Kentucky but also have losses to Boston University and Stetson. / South Carolina photo

The 2018-19 men's college basketball season ended with a Final Four consisting of two first-time participants — Auburn and Texas Tech — and a first-time champion — Virginia.

Compared to the first half of this season, that seems relatively mundane.

Staggering upsets have been the norm this winter, with this week alone providing the Palmetto State surprises of Clemson taking down Duke and South Carolina dramatically disposing of Kentucky. League play tends to present these results on occasion, but this season also has included numerous nonconference stunnings, such as Evansville over Kentucky inside Rupp Arena and Stephen F. Austin over Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"The biggest problem we have at the high-major level is that a majority of us are very young," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "The Kentuckys of the world lose so many guys year in and year out to the NBA draft. For teams like us, we just have a lot of guys who transfer, and it's part of the society that we're all dealing with.

"It's not a South Carolina problem. It's just a societal thing. Kids are walking into high-major schools thinking they're going to play 30 minutes a game and average 22 points a game from day one. When they don't, there is a sense of disappointment, and some of them get up and leave, so you stay young too much."

South Carolina is 9-7 this season with wins over Kentucky and Virginia, but eight days after knocking off the Cavaliers 70-59 in Charlottesville, the Gamecocks lost at home 63-56 to Stetson. Martin described his loss to the Hatters as "the most disappointed I've been as a coach — high school or college level."

Auburn followed up its Final Four run by winning its first 15 games this season until Wednesday night's 83-64 loss at Alabama. Yet Bruce Pearl's Tigers easily could have been 13-2 heading to Tuscaloosa, having beat South Alabama at the buzzer and having rallied from a 14-point deficit to survive Furman in overtime.

"One of the things that doesn't get talked about nearly enough is the quality of high school and AAU basketball and the depth of the talent," Pearl said. "For all these teams that have McDonald's All-Americans and top-100 players, there are other kids on those teams who are training these last 10 years or so like they've never trained before, so as a result there are a lot more good players coming out of high school.

"I think another factor for what's happening this season is that last year's freshman class was elite. This year's freshman class is very good, but it's not elite. Moving the 3-point line back a little bit also has helped some mid-major teams who can still really shoot the ball from a greater distance, while you are seeing, in the Power Five conferences in particular, the 3-point percentages dropping."

Auburn's loss made San Diego State (18-0) of the Mountain West Conference the only remaining undefeated team in Division I men's basketball.

There have been more rebuilding assignments this season in both the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference after those two leagues combined to produce 16 of the 30 first-round selections during the 2019 NBA draft. Most ACC programs are six games into their league schedules, and there are no undefeated teams remaining in conference play.

Most SEC teams are four games into conference play, with Will Wade's LSU Tigers possessing the only 4-0 start.

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Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey and the Kentucky Wildcats defeated in-state rival Louisville in nonconference play, but not before suffering a stunning loss to Evansville inside Rupp Arena. / Kentucky photo

The widespread youth combined with the sizable variance in results have provided challenges for those within the SEC who are charged with keeping their rosters emotionally sound.

"I coach at this place called Kentucky, where everything is life and death around us," John Calipari said. "I knew our schedule would be hard and that we could lose some games you think you can win and win some games you think you can lose. I'm trying to get the players to worry about getting better.

"This isn't college football, where if you lose three or four or five games early, you're done. It's not what this is. It's about how you get your team playing its best and being in the right frame of mind in March."

Given what's transpired so far this season, there is no telling what March could have in store.

"With youth comes inconsistencies, and it's as simple as that," Martin said. "There is a reason major corporations don't hire 18- and 19-year-olds to make decisions. They hire them to make coffee and to give people rides. That's my opinion of why we're going through what we're going through at the high-major level, and it's why you're seeing it across the country. You've got talented teams who can beat anybody, but because of their youth and immaturities, they can get beat by anybody, too."

Said Pearl: "The talent pool is a little different this season, but I think it's going to make college basketball even more exciting with all the parity and competitiveness. We haven't had to wait until March for it to get mad."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.

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