I just might have to change my mind about college basketball.
This past winter, I wrote that unlike college football, where just about every down can feel as though it has national championship implications, college hoops is all about March. March Madness -- when it seems all but maybe 12 college teams "qualify" for the NCAA tournament.
The tournament gives us an exciting three weeks of one-and-done insanity (and rarely serves up a stinker of a final as it did last spring when UConn and Butler made us long for peach baskets). But until then, I said then, little in college hoops seems to matter.
It's a regional sport dominated by regional rivalries. Any buzz it generates centers on battles over conference banners (snore), mid-majors (who, let's face it, are no longer mid-anything) making unexpected noise, potential bubble teams or who might be the next Butler. Heck, at this time last year, the only folks outside of Richmond who knew about Shaka Smart, the vibrant, young coach who led uber-underdog Virginia Commonwealth to an improbable Final Four and became the darling face of the NCAA tournament, were named Smart.
Even if top-ranked North Carolina loses in November (circle Nov. 30 versus my favorite little man, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor), what does it matter? The Tar Heels will be a favorite for the national title. On the other hand, if LSU, currently the No. 1-ranked college football team in the nation, loses to Alabama on Saturday night, the Tigers could wind up booking rooms for the Louisiana Powerball Bowl.
Typically at this time of year (and especially now, with remnants of this past weekend's snowstorm in the Northeast still on my lawn), all I'm thinking is: It's a heck of a long time until March. Typically, the NBA has just tipped off. And, granted, Milwaukee at Cleveland on a cold November night is far from a prime-time marquee event and ultimately will be inconsequential when it comes to NBA championship implications. But defending champion Dallas and Dirk Nowitzki facing on-the-rise Oklahoma City with Kevin Durant on that same night is must-see stuff.
And typically, late-blooming college basketball just has to wait. I don't care how many times Duke and North Carolina play for Tobacco Road bragging rights.
OK, chill, you college hoops junkies. I know you truly care about that Gonzaga-Notre Dame matchup in late November. Good for you. It's just that the rest of us? Not so much. At least not until lately.
But now that it looks as though there might actually not be an NBA season -- at least not during these last days of autumn and perhaps well into winter -- I just might give college hoops a shot a little earlier this year.
As, I suspect, will many other NBA fans, especially those turned off by the torturous lockout and standoff between the clueless-about-the-economy players and their help-us-fix-this-mess-we-made-ourselves owners. My colleague Dana O'Neil pointed out in a column the other day that attendance at college games likely won't see a dramatic increase as a result of the absence of the NBA, but I'm betting we'll pay more attention to the college basketball season whether we do it in person or not.
Indeed, this might be the most important college hoops season in decades. The sport has a unique opportunity right now to prove it's about more than March, and prove it on a stage uncrowded by its big-money big brothers in the pros.
How can that happen?
Allow me to add to O'Neil's catalog of quality at the college level with these potential eye-opening storylines:
• A dominant team emerges. I'm not a big fan of preseason rankings in any sport because they're based on perceptions and predictions -- and there are no two greater intangibles in sports. That said, this year's rankings are filled with traditional powers. North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut, Syracuse and Duke are all in the top six. (So is Ohio State, but the Buckeyes are a football "brand," not basketball.) If one of those teams gets off to a 10-0 start, barnstorming through its schedule as though its opponents are the Washington Generals, it could make for a compelling drama.
• Upsets. Conversely to what I just said, if the rankings are turned on their ear and some of those top-tier teams are felled by a Cinderella wannabe before Christmas, it could showcase the talented (yet seldom seen, at least nationally) players at non-brand schools, such as Baylor's dandy tandem of 6-foot-9 freshman Quincy Miller and 6-10 sophomore (and preseason Big 12 Player of the Year) Perry Jones III, or Vanderbilt's shooting guard John Jenkins (19.5 points per game last season), who could be this year's Jimmer Fredette. An early upset also would force us all to debate whether the victory is enough to carry the upstart into the NCAAs -- didn't I say just about everybody gets in?! -- or knock Goliath from contention for a No. 1 seed (which, in the end, matters little).
• A few good men. The NBA age floor compels supertalented high school players to attend college for at least one season before buying momma a house and has transformed college hoops into one big McDonald's All-America High School tour. Every so often, though, a senior throwback emerges and reminds us of the time when college basketball was a young man's game. This year's man to watch is Taylor, the only senior on a preseason first-team All-American lineup that resembles a Head Start class. He's a 6-1 guard who scores (18.1 points per game last season), takes care of the rock (nearly four times as many assists as turnovers) and plays low-jack defense. I'll also be rooting for Brandon Davies, the 6-9 forward who was BYU's leading rebounder before being suspended last season for having premarital sex with his girlfriend, a violation of the school's honor code. He accepted his punishment with dignity and is back for his junior year.
• A very good woman. If you haven't yet seen Brittney Griner of No. 1-ranked Baylor, you haven't seen the most dominant player in the nation -- of either gender. The 6-8 junior with the 7-4 wingspan needs 54 blocks (she had 170 last season) to break the Big 12 career mark, but she isn't just the reincarnation of Bill Russell. Griner enters the season with a string of 40 consecutive double-figure scoring games. Put her on prime time a couple of nights a week, and some NBA fans might start to think she could help their favorite team.
• More Smart. The 34-year-old VCU coach and his damn-the-prognosticators Rams lost to Butler in the national semifinals, but he won just about everything else, including a new eight-year contract that pays him $1.2 million annually. He returns to rebuild with nine freshmen and sophomores and just one senior, and the Rams are picked to finish third in the Colonial Athletic Conference behind George Mason and Drexel. Nonetheless, Smart remains one of the bright new faces of the game and should be in the spotlight from the first tipoff of the season.
One that won't be obscured by the NBA.
Who knows? Even I might watch.
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.