On Feb. 16, Kansas visited West Virginia for a Top 25 matchup that came down to the final seconds. It was played before thousands of empty seats.
On Feb. 23, Kansas visited 13-15 Kansas State in a game that did not come down to the final seconds. The sold-out crowd stormed the court so viciously that the cops turned to Twitter to hunt down students.
The former game is a symptom of the sport’s problem. The latter was a reminder of the sport’s greatness. As the Kansas/Kansas State game tipped off, announcer Brent Musberger told those watching at home to appreciate the atmosphere and soak it in.
College basketball is at a crossroads. Interest wanes more than ever during conference season. A sport already overshadowed by its postseason has become overwhelmed and defined by it. The 2014-15 season has been dominated by Kentucky’s quest for perfection and a lack of other storylines.
There are plenty of theories being thrown around. However, the solutions to these periphery issues do not address why the sport is missing something.
Yes, scoring is way down and the 35-second shot clock is too long. But addressing those issues won’t make Tulane/UConn any more interesting to the common fan.
Yes, the talent pool has been diluted by one-and-done freshmen or high school stars jumping straight to pro leagues overseas. But addressing those issues will not make anyone in Washington, D.C. give a crap when Xavier comes to the Verizon Center.
Yes, adding four more teams to the NCAA Tournament was a bad idea and expanded the bubble to include more undeserving teams. But reducing the field back to 64 teams is not going to make a Syracuse fan get pumped up by a mid-February trip to Clemson.
It’s time for college basketball to address those issues. It’s also time for the sport to realize the underlying problem – the conference rivalries have been destroyed.
College basketball, far more than college football, relied on those rivalries to get fans excited during these harsh winter months. College football rivalries are great but there are so easily replaced – when your team plays 12 games a year, the opponent rarely matters. Sure, Texas A&M should play Texas but playing LSU on Thanksgiving night is a reasonable facsimile.
In college basketball, things are simply different. Syracuse and Georgetown didn’t play once a year. Neither did Kansas and Missouri, or Duke and Maryland. Instead, they played twice a year and sometimes three times. Heck, in 2001, Duke and Maryland played four of the best college basketball games I have ever seen in my life in the span of three months.
Without these rivalries, the sport suffers to a point that the casual fan simply tunes out until March. Even for schools who didn’t switch conferences, their rivals visit less frequently. It was not even 10 years ago that nearly ever basketball school played its main rivals twice a year – with the 16-team Big East being an outlier. Today, every conference is an outlier.
College basketball can barely support 12-team leagues – it cannot and does not support 14-, 15- or 16-team leagues. The only reason the Big East thrived was due to the overwhelming superiority of those teams. You have a league with 11 tournament teams and good things happen. That is the exception, not the rule.
Now, the good teams are spread out among a dozen conferences. Gonzaga and Wichita State and the like are mid-majors expected to run through lesser opponents. This year, thanks to imbalanced schedules, we see Power Five teams like Kentucky, Arizona and Wisconsin go weeks at a time without playing a ranked opponent. It makes the big games bigger but – again, due to March Madness – they mean so little in the grand scheme of things. It also makes the non-descript games all the more non-descript.
It hurts because there is an outrageous amount of college basketball on every single night. Cable networks like NBCSN, Fox Sports, conference networks and myriad ESPN channels scrape for live content. There may be 10 games on a time and you would trade eight of them for one good one.
For the hardcore college basketball fan, the preceding 700 words mean little. And I applaud them.
But I’m not a hardcore college basketball fan. I love UConn. I love my alma mater George Washington. And I love watching big games. There are fewer of those and that means there is less time I’m watching the sport. If you’ve read this blog, you should get an idea about how much I love sports. If you can’t engage me, you’ve lost the general public.
Ironically, the most exciting part of the regular season is now November and December and it’s only going to get worse as old rivals play in the non-conference. UConn played Boston College last November in MSG and it had more atmosphere than most conference games. Do you remember when Villanova played Syracuse in a packed arena? Does Villanova get that atmosphere this year when Creighton showed up?
Last year, I wrote about ways to make the college basketball season mean more. Even if those changes were all instituted – along with a shortened shot clock, less timeouts and players staying for 2+ years – it wouldn’t fix the root of the problem.
I wish I had a positive note to end this piece. I don’t. But it’s okay – March arrives on Sunday.
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