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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Does the regular season matter? Of course

By Eamonn Brennan

For the past 10 years, college basketball fans and college basketball businesspeople have been talking about how to "fix" the sport's regular season. When the New York Times published a story ("A Five Month Season Boils Down to One") in December, the issue got widespread notice (and the story some widespread criticism), but all I could think about was this Twitter account.

I only kid. Let's be serious: The college hoops regular season does face major challenges. College football has never been more popular or more powerful. The same is true, almost doubly so, for the NFL. When the hoops season begins, it is said, many "casual" sports fans -- I don't know any, but apparently they exist -- are too caught up with the read option and/or their fantasy football teams to notice. College basketball should start the season later, become a one-semester sport, play the NCAA tournament in May -- as if CBS and Turner are just going to be totally cool with that.

Lorenzo Romar
Lorenzo Romar and Washington missed the NCAA tournament last March despite winning the Pac-12 regular-season title.
But when we're discussing this stuff, when we're saying the season doesn't "matter," it's important to make one very key distinction. We should clearly lay out what we're talking about. Are we talking about the business of college basketball? Or are we actually talking about college basketball?

The business

The business end is not an area of my expertise, though I'd argue that when the top 33 coaches in your sport all earn more than a million dollars, some by several magnitudes, the business of your sport is doing all right. When CBS and Turner pay the NCAA $11 billion for the right to sell ads on the NCAA tournament's back, there is clearly enough interest in the sport to sustain a few months of regular-season play.

But, sure, the business of college basketball could probably be improved. The season probably would be better off in a less cluttered environment. There are probably ways to lure in more casual fans. For example: At NBA games, franchises spend a pretty penny and no small amount of effort keeping young kids and basketball novices entertained with loud music, scoreboard gimmicks, t-shirt cannons and donuts racing bagels. Maybe some college basketball teams can start a reality TV show, or play a 16-team tournament in one gym to start the year, just so the so-called "casual" fan can have some shiny thing to distract them momentarily from whatever version of "Real Housewives" they're live-tweeting at the moment.

I don't know. Like I said, I'm no businessman. I'm just workshopping here.

The game

If you want to talk about the actual game -- the game of basketball, played on hardwood courts between two teams representing Division I secondary education institutions -- the simple fact is that in the sport's 64-team modern era, the regular season has never mattered more. Why? Because the NCAA, seeing how quickly we were headed in this direction, made a very clear and crucial rules change years ago. It told its selection committee that every regular-season game would now matter in equal measure. Previously, it looked at a team's final 12 games in February and March, and weighed those results more heavily than games in November and December. Now, however, every game matters the same. You can't play horribly in November and expect to wash that stench off with a solid conference season. You've got to go out and beat some people.

Florida coach Billy Donovan gets it. This is what he told our own Andy Katz just this morning:
"What you do in November and December as a league, it just sticks with you for the rest of January, February and March,'' said Donovan. "On Selection Sunday, they're talking about games that happened on Nov. 18 five months ago. Maybe the team got better. But because of (the non-conference) the league gets put in a box. The only way you get out of it is get as many teams in the tournament and do something.''

Donovan might not like it, but he gets it.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, on the other hand, does not get it. This is what he told the NYT for its December story:
Short of gimmicks, college basketball could reward regular-season champions, not conference-tournament champions, with automatic N.C.A.A. tournament slots. Washington, for instance, won the Pac-12 last season but did not obtain an at-large tournament bid, a rarity for a major conference and, to those involved, an injustice.
“The decision to exclude Washington was a terrible statement and a signal that the regular season doesn’t matter,” Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said.

Seriously, that quote never gets old. It actually gets better every time I read it.

What Scott doesn't seem to understand is that "Pac 12 season" does not equal "regular season." What the Times failed to note in its story, but any college basketball fan would recognize, is that Washington wasn't any good last year. The Huskies, like the rest of their league, beat no one in the nonconference -- the Pac-12 went 1-29 against the RPI top 50 in nonconference play last season; 1-29! -- and when the selection committee looked at their resume it didn't care that the Huskies fell backwards into winning a bad league. And rightfully so! Every year, there are plenty of regular-season conference champions that don't get at-large bids. Sometimes they lose in conference tournament play and don't go to the tournament. So what? Don't whine about it. Field better basketball teams. (Which, it should be noted, is exactly what the Pac-12 is doing this season.)

Oh, by the way: If the Pac-12 wants to make its regular-season champion the recipient of its at-large bid, like the Ivy League, it is well within its power to do so. It won't do that, of course, because conference tournaments make a lot of money. But if Scott is so worried about the future of the "regular season," he should convince his conference commissioners to take the fun out of the conference tournament. Good luck with that.

Every game matters, we just get more of them

The fact is this: Every game that has been played since Nov. 11, and every game that will be played between tonight and the first week of the NCAA tournament, matters. There are no isolated outcomes. The road to the NCAA tournament is a hairline fracture; the differences between getting in and getting out and can be miniscule. Every scoreline impacts everything the NCAA selection committee looks for in March -- nonconference strength of schedule, top 50 RPI wins, sub-200 RPI losses, all of it -- in both obvious and subtle ways.

It's not just about whether a team gets into the NCAA tournament, but how. Where are they seeded? Where must they travel? Who will they play? Every win or loss in November and December makes ripples outward. The permutations are endless.

So are the stories. To some, college basketball's nearly 350 teams are a downside. It's unwieldy. It's too much to keep track of, too many new players to know every season, too many games between bad teams that I don't care about. There's some truth to that. But 350 teams gives you not just 350 stories, but 350 sets of stories. Teams evolve and change throughout the season. Groups come together or rip apart. Frustrating players suddenly get it, or don't. And many of the smallest and most low-profile of these stories are the ones most worth telling.

College basketball fans understand this, even if marketing executives do not.

So, as we embark on the next three months of awesomeness, don't fall prey to the existential worry that we're all just wasting our time, and we'll just wipe the whole slate clean until March. It's tempting, I know. But we're talking actual college basketball. We're not talking about market share or mind share or Facebook pokes or Twitter buzz or that other shiny thing in front of your face, oohh what's that, weeeee. We're talking about flesh and blood and sweat and sneakers yelping in empty gyms on a summer afternoon, and thousands of students waiting outside for days to freak out for 40 joyous minutes on Saturday.

Nah, man. College basketball's doing just fine.