In American sports, the regular season doesn’t matter.
With the exception of college football, games in the regular season don’t hold much meaning. LSU and Alabama proved in 2011 that even college football is not immune to the simple fact of the American sports culture – championship games mean more than regular season games.
under the spell of playoffs in this country. We like sudden death. We like do or die games. We like knowing everything is on the line. Rarely, in any American team sport, does the team with the best record in the regular season end up being declared champion.
Nowhere is this fact more relevant than in college basketball. And no sport is battling more with a so-called “meaningless” regular season. No matter that LeBron’s Heat or Sidney Crosby’s Penguins will play a regular season just as “meaningless” to their title hopes, it is the loud, vocal minority within the sports media driving the message that college basketball has a meaningless regular season.
To a point, they are right. The flashpoint came in mid-December when #1 Indiana went down to Butler in a dramatic, back and forth overtime thriller on broadcast giant CBS on a Saturday afternoon. The game was out-rated by a truly meaningless game – the New Mexico Bowl between Arizona and Nevada in front of a friends & family crowd. To some, it proved the indisputable fact that football rules in this country.
To others, it was proof that college basketball had fallen off the map in terms of relevance. In a way, it’s a compliment – no sport has a better playoff than college basketball. March Madness, much like football, rules in this country. What other sporting event even makes a splash in that month? But its presence overwhelms college basketball from November through February.
Does college basketball’s regular season matter? No. Does that matter? Judging by the check CBS & Turner cut to the NCAA every year for a few weeks of television, probably not.
There are more college basketball games on television than anyone could have imagined just a few years. On a recent weekday night, with my sports package, I could watch live college basketball on 10 different channels. 10!! NBC Sports Network, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, CBS Sports Network, the Big Ten Network, the local CW station (ACC ), Comcast SportsNet (A-10), the Comcast Network (SEC) and MASN. If college basketball doesn’t matter, there are a lot of television networks that didn’t get the memo.
There still lies the perception problem, which has truth to it. On Saturday night, Louisville and Notre Dame played a 5 overtime instant classic. When the NCAA Tournament starts, it will likely have had no impact on anything. Should it? Could it?
Yes, it can. And yes, we can make the college basketball season more meaningful. It won’t suddenly quiet all the haters, but it will make the sport better. Let’s make the regular season more meaningful for the top teams, the bubble teams and the teams that, well, aren’t very good.
1. Home Court Advantage in the NCAA Tournament
When I called out the Heat and Penguins above, their regular season in essence has one meaning – get home-court/ice advantage. Seeding matters far less than getting a possible Game 7 at home, or starting a series with two home games. In the NFL, home field advantage is a significant driving factor for teams – even with the Patriots locking up the AFC East in Week 12 seemingly every year, they are still motivated to play home games.
The NCAA Tournament has no such reward. In fact, its goal of providing the top teams with more games closer to home has produced comical results. UConn has won 3 national titles since 1999. It has played zero NCAA tournament games within its state’s border since 1990. Duke and North Carolina play in-state almost every year. It’s not fair – as any top team west of the Mississippi can surely attest.
Compounding this problem is the fact most first and second-round games (ahem, second and third round games) are played in staid, half-empty NBA arenas with no atmosphere. College basketball, as with college football, is defined by atmosphere. It’s Cameroon Indoor Stadium and the chanting. It’s Assembly Hall in Bloomington reaching a fever pitch. It’s student sections. It’s the Izzone and the Show. It’s court rushing. It’s chaos.
Let’s move the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament on campus. The top 4 seeds in each region get to host 4 teams. Imagine the added intrigue of Louisville/Notre Dame when home-court in the NCAA Tournament could be on the line? Imagine the conference tournaments with that added weight?
The regionals can remain at neutral sites. The first weekend should be brought on campus. Think upsets are fun at neutral sites? Think, if you could, to last year and Lehigh knocking out Duke in Cameroon Indoor Stadium instead of a half-empty Greensboro Coliseum. Think about a packed Allen Fieldhouse or Rupp Arena cheering on their favorite team in games that truly matter. Think about how loud a student section could be when everything is on the line.
A top team should not be beholden to the NCAA Tournament committee’s selection of sites 3 years prior to gain a home court advantage for being one of the best 16 teams in America. They earned it. Give it to them.
2. Cut The Field Back to 64
What really needs to be said here? We don’t need 68 teams in the tournament. Read any “Bubble Watch” column and the refrain is similar – “Boy, we got some bad teams on the bubble.” It’s too many.
The straw man argument from coaches – who, shockingly, don’t want to get fired – is that the number of Division 1 teams has expanded so that means the tournament should too. I guess I miss the part when 100 new teams were added to the ACC. Yes, the NCAA’s top division has increased in numbers recently. But do we need more tournament slots because Utah Valley State and NJIT made the leap up?
Of course not. The “First Four” charade in Dayton every year is sad and farcical. Yet, it’s hardly makes the top 10 of horrible things the NCAA has done in the past 3 years. So…go NCAA?
3. Limit Conference Tournaments to 8 Teams
DePaul is a horrible basketball program. They are the worst Big East team each and every year. I believe they have won 6 conference games in 6 years. They are a disgrace.
Yet, every March, they show up in Madison Square Garden with a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament merely by existing.
The straw man argument from coaches – who, shockingly, don’t want to get fired – is that every kid deserves to play in a conference tournament. Dick Vitale loves to shout about the indignity of kids that don’t get to play in these tournaments.
I’m sorry, are we giving out participant ribbons now for the top level of collegiate basketball in this country? In what world do 100% of teams get into the playoffs to decide a champion? Especially when an NCAA Tournament berth is on the line?
To be fair, if we really wanted to make the college basketball regular season mean something, we’d get rid of these stupid tournaments altogether but that horse has left the barn long, long ago.
We can still make it better. Top 8 from any conference makes it in. Period, end of story. No conference has more than 16 teams and, let’s be frank, if you can’t finish in the top half of your conference, you don’t deserve to be considered for a championship.
As I write this, Illinois – the team that knocked off Indiana is possibly the finish of the year – is on the NCAA bubble and 9th in the Big Ten standings. Wouldn’t that be a nice, juicy story for the media to bite into, as Illinois fights just to make its conference tournament?
The status quo for college basketball isn’t bad. But it isn’t great. It’s adequate.
College basketball is a great sport. It deserves more than adequate.
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