Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Joy and Sorrow of College Hoops in November

By: Kerrance James

Let’s start with the Joy:

Thank the good lord that the games are back. It was a miserable 221 days between Kentucky cutting down the nets and Eastern Michigan’s tip-off this past Friday afternoon. Scandals ran rampant from current players at Harvard to former players at Duke and UNC; new stories of future conference realignment over-shadowed the actual off-season conference realignment, thereby guaranteeing that no one will know who is in which conference until February (not without a handy-dandy cheat sheet, at any rate); and we still have no idea whether or not we’ll see Shabazz Muhammad play a game for UCLA this season. But that’s all behind us (except for the Muhammad part) and we can get back to actually enjoying the game.

There have been some fantastic early season games in the form of nail-biters, comebacks, powerhouse slugfests, and various players and teams making an immediate positive impression. If you watched any of the 24 hour tip-off marathon on Tuesday, there’s a good chance you either saw Gonzaga destroy a transfer-laden West Virginia team, or at least heard someone on ESPN react excessively to the game by declaring them a Final Four candidate as a result of the shellacking. You might have also seen up to eight blocks from Chris Obekpa, setting a single-game St. John’s record in his very first game with the school, and unofficially nominating them as a sleeper team in the Big East. But most likely, you tuned in for one or both of the nightcaps between Michigan State/Kansas and Duke/Kentucky, and you weren’t disappointed (unless you’re now concerned that Kansas or Kentucky might somehow be on the bubble).

But that leads me to the Sorrow:

Unless you’re a die-hard fan and really intrigued by the bubble implications of the 2K Sports Classic Primer between Alabama, Oregon State, Villanova, and Purdue (sadly, I am), the tip-off marathon is probably the most peaked your interest in college hoops will be until Selection Sunday. For all the hype that occurred on Tuesday, it’s as if the NCAA is hoping you’ll Rip Van Winkle your way to early January and wake up with the same amount of enthusiasm. Take Michigan State, for example: the Spartans opened the season with 2 highly competitive games against Connecticut and Kansas…and now they don’t play a currently ranked team in the next 2+ months. How pathetic is that?

Aside from Wisconsin/Florida and MAYBE UAB/Creighton, what game would a casual college hoops fan have even considered watching last night? And what games are they going to watch tonight? I mean, I’m personally drawn to a lot of games today – Saint Mary’s/Utah State, UTEP/Arizona, Villanova/Purdue, West Carolina/Wichita State, Southern Miss/Georgia, Illinois State/Drexel, NC State/Penn State, St. John’s/Charleston, Dayton/Colorado, and Baylor/Boston College – but do any of those ten games appeal to someone who just wants to watch ranked teams square off? Probably not. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You simply can’t have high-profile games every night.

The problem is that the non-conference schedule is way too long to start out with a bang and expect to maintain public interest. 24 straight hours of college hoops is practically my nirvana, and it’s enough to get casual fans to tune in (it helps that there’s nothing else to watch on a Tuesday, but that’s neither here nor there); but why do it in early November, with players (especially freshmen) still getting a feel for their teammates and with about 45 days of comparatively inferior games to follow?

I can’t be the only person who spent half of the Duke/Kentucky game thinking how much “better” it would have been a month from now, with more polished versions of Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, and Rasheed Sulaimon, and a potentially healthy Marshall Plumlee and Ryan Harrow. Not to mention how much better it would be if you could watch that game and think, “Wow, that was great. Can’t wait to see what Duke does against Davidson next week and NC State shortly thereafter,” rather than, “Wow, that was great. Wake me up when Duke plays someone better than Florida Gulf Coast.” That game was the basketball equivalent of Kansas State and Oregon squaring off on the opening weekend of college football (you know, minus the fact that Kentucky can still win the national championship), and then each playing 2 games against the dregs of D-1 before opening their conference schedule. If Kansas State and Oregon were going to play, they would do it on the last week before conference play so that the players have a few games under their belt and so there’s not a huge letdown of viewership/attendance for the next several games, right?

Even if they want to have the 24 hour tip-off marathon four days into the season, they could at least keep people interested by spacing out the other “pre-season” tournaments a bit. There might be more college hoops pre-season tournaments than college football bowl games, but 90% of them start and finish between now and Thanksgiving, and best of luck to you if you’re trying to figure out the brackets of who plays who. For as great of a job as ESPN does with conference tournaments during Championship Week, they really don’t give a shit about keeping us abreast of any of these tournaments aside from the Maui Invitational and the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (RIP Jimmy V). [Sidenote: Didn’t the Great Alaska Shootout used to be one of the best pre-season tournaments? What the heck happened, Anchorage?]

So, is there a reason that no games from these tournaments are being played between November 26 and December 22; or that, in general, marquee games don’t get played in December? Is it some sort of double-standard about academics, where the football teams can practice and play during finals “season,” but the basketball teams have to be mindful of their study halls? (I see Kentucky plays a handful of marquee games during this time of year, but, to be fair, when has John Calipari ever been concerned about crazy statistics like “graduation rate?”) Is the NCAA concerned that, no matter how good the games are, they’re not going to get peak turn-out during bowl season / end of NFL regular season, so they frontload their big games to November and then just half-heartedly try to keep the seats warm until January?

Whatever the reason, it’s a shame that Average Joe won’t spend the next month and a half paying attention to the games upon which Lunardi, Joe winds up heavily basing his Bracketology updates. But you better believe I will. Starting with that Dayton/Colorado game in 20 minutes.

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