Every year, I have the same complaint. Every year, it is an utterly pointless waste of everyone's time. And every year, it's totally true.
College basketball's opening night, in so far as it exists, is, well, terrible.
That's not to disrespect the fine programs on display tonight, our first night of actual, non-exhibition, this-actually-matters-now basketball games. As discussed earlier today, Pittsburgh-Rhode Island is actually a better game than most season openers, and it might have a bit of intrigue to offer us. But the fact that I just wrote "Pittsburgh-Rhode Island is actually a better game than most season openers" in an attempt to defend our first night back tells you everything you need to know about the way college basketball opens its season: with a whimper, not a bang.
Of course, college basketball gets its big bang in March; the sport, as you no doubt know, has the best finish in all of sports. Millions of people who otherwise couldn't care less about college basketball tune in for three weeks to watch guys like Ali Farokhmanesh and Stephen Curry and Carmelo Anthony, the once and future stars of the game.
But that's just the thing: College basketball culminates in this major event, one that attracts fans from all walks of sporting life, and one that turns even the least sports-inclined pair of eyeballs into an amateur bracketology expert. Clearly, people like to watch college basketball. So why is the beginning of the season so lame?
From a purely historical standpoint, Fox's Jeff Goodman has the answer:
It all began to change when the NCAA, in 2006, repealed the “two-in-four” rule that kept teams from playing in multi-team events more than twice in any four-year span.
Now instead of events such as the Maui Invitational, Preseason NIT and even Coaches vs. Cancer all being loaded with Preseason Top 25 teams, tons of tournaments have popped up (i.e. Old Spice, 76 Classic, Puerto Rico Tip-Off) which has resulted in a dilution of talent.
This is key: The disparate nature of the early season tournaments has made the beginning of the college hoops season incredibly unwieldy.
But it's also a mark of failure on a couple of other fronts. For one, marketing: There is no coordinated college hoops effort to start the season with a major event. ESPN's Tip-Off Marathon gets close, but when you look at all the schedules of all the teams in the country -- some are playing tonight, but many begin Friday night, which is probably the worst possible time-slot for viewership -- there's no coordination or collectivity. The season just sort of ... starts. Once it gets going, it gradually picks up steam, but "hey, stick with us, things get really good in December and January" isn't exactly the best marketing philosophy.
Other factors that accentuate this problem exist outside the control of college hoops' power brokers. For one, more people care about college football, and it dominates most college fans' lives until January. Second, way more people care about the NFL and, yeah, it's kind of a big deal. Third, because of those two factors, weekends in the fall are pretty much shot, and weekends are when most people like to watch their sports. Weeknights are when they like to watch Bristol Palin dance in a bear costume. It's a tough market out there.
Despite all that -- and despite the fact that this will never happen -- it'd be great to see college hoops' conference commissioners and the NCAA come together and decide that college basketball is too awesome to limp into the season. I'm not sure what form this non-limping awesomeness would take, exactly, but hey, how about a conference vs. conference tournament? We already have the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in late November; maybe we move that thing up and generate a little buzz this week, instead. Maybe we make other conferences follow suit. Maybe we take last year's Elite Eight and make them play a round-robin group stage, or a fortnight of badminton, or a high-score duel on Angry Birds.
I don't know. I'm spitballing here. All I know is that what we currently have is not getting it done. College basketball is great. It has so many prospective fans out there, just waiting to be reached. It fights an uphill battle for relevance in the fall, and that's understandable, but it doesn't do itself many favors, either. When the first night of your season looks like tonight, and the first month of your season is a mixture of guarantee games, minor road tests, and an alphabet soup of early-season tournaments, you're not exactly making it easy for the casual fan to jump in.
Again, this is a completely impractical, overused and, frankly, wasteful rant. It's the same thing every year. And with each new year, as we diehards wonder what takes the rest of you so long, it's as true as it ever was.
But, hey, oh well. College basketball is officially back. (!!) Let's stop whining now. It's a quick season, and we don't want to miss anything.