Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Commentary [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Just get us to March (Madness)!

By Roy S. Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

March Madness Cartoon
Between the weather and the endless regular hoops season, our man is being held hostage.

Every winter, my mantra is simple: Just get me to March!

It helps me endure the season's storms and tumbling temps -- never more so than during this year's Winter from Hell in the Northeast.

But the thought of March also helps me survive college basketball's regular season. Or as I call it: college basketball's preseason. What we're enduring right now is just the precursor to March Madness, the second-biggest event in sports. That's the real college basketball season.

Now, I'm not trying to anger the legions of college hoops fans who somehow can remain frenzied from the moment Midnight Madness signals the start of practices in mid-October right on through the Final Four. Nor do I want @DickieV to start tweeting about me.

But frankly, I'm numb to the pre-madness. Yeah, I surf through the channels each night and catch pieces of the myriad games airing from coast to coast. I see the passion and pageantry (and often hear the vulgarity); and I understand that in some parts of the nation, Duke-North Carolina, Kansas-Kansas State and Kentucky-Louisville still matter.

ice storm
March Madness means more than just basketball that matters. It means the end of winter, too.

But ultimately, just how much?

This year, 68 schools -- more than ever -- will be invited to the Big Dance. That's about one in every five of the 345 Division-I teams. Yes, teams still have to "qualify" for the tournament, either by their ranking, by winning their conference's regular season or conference title, or by some mystical formula that only Neil deGrasse Tyson (the NOVA scienceNOW guy) could decipher. But let's face it: You, me and our kids could probably sit down today and pencil in 40 of the teams that will ultimately play for the 2010-11 national championship.

So unless your favorite school is a mid-mid-major (the real mid-majors will certainly be dancin'), or a just-plain-minor playing for its postseason life, these games are all about seed-jockeying and little more.

In college football, the BCS (I call it the JPM, for Just Plain Madness) tilts too much toward a team's regular-season performance. Lose a game in Week 2 and you're essentially playing for a spot in the Gumdrop Bowl.

By contrast, the success and popularity of March Madness (along with the growth of the number of teams participating) have rendered college basketball's regular season almost irrelevant to all but the sport's die-hards. And to their credit, those fans hold on like an underdog with a lead in the final seconds on the road. ESPN's college hoops ratings have remained steady (a 1.1 or close to it) since 2005-06. The number of households watching regular-season games, however, increased to 1.05 million last season, up from 965,000 over that same span a year earlier, according to Adobe.

Moreover, hordes of fans are watching games digitally. Through February of last season on ESPN3, the digital channel, fans watched 3.1 million hours of college hoops, 266 percent ahead of 2008-09. (The online option, of course, pretty much didn't exist until relatively recently.)

There are still plenty of people like my good friend Lamont, a Pitt grad who came to my house Monday for a meeting. He was dressed in a suit and tie; but as he sat down, he pulled a Pitt sweatshirt over his head and donned it proudly. "When Pitt's playing," he said, "you gotta be right." (As the meeting ended, he gleefully learned the Panthers had defeated West Virginia 71-66. Only then did the sweatshirt come off.)

But come on now: The thrill of winning the conference title (who gets the banner, the regular-season champ or league tournament winner?!) these days lasts only as long as your team experiences "shining moments" in the NCAAs.

And for schools with winning traditions or high tournament expectations, an earlier-than-expected vacation in March douses the glow of a regular-season championship like a barrel of warm Gatorade.

Not to say there aren't great teams this season. Top-ranked Ohio State and No. 2 Kansas have distinguished themselves as the season's elite, and No. 3 Texas and No. 4 and Pittsburgh are on their heels. No. 5 Duke, of course, is always dangerous.

Stanford
The Stanford women's victory over UConn meant the end of the Huskies' historic winning streak, but the matchup that really matters won't happen until the NCAA tournament.

Or dynamic players, such as BYU's Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer. No one, though -- not even potential top NBA draft picks Perry Jones of Baylor or Ohio State's Jared Sullinger -- is sparking the kind of future-NBA-star buzz that, say, Blake Griffin and John Wall did in recent seasons. (Except maybe for Brittney Griner, the starting center on Baylor's women's team, who could probably help the pitiable Cleveland Cavaliers right now.)

Here's my beef: The dearth of national games -- must-see matchups of great teams and great players that pique my interest because I'm a basketball fan, even if I don't have a particular rooting interest in either team.

In college hoops, the best teams and best players rarely (if ever) play each other during the regular season. Even when Texas (then ranked 11th) squared off with Kansas in a Big 12 matchup last month (and won 74-63, the Jayhawks' only loss), the game wasn't of the block-out-my-afternoon variety.

I wanna see Ohio State and Kansas square off now, rather than hope they meet in the NCAAs. Or BYU (with Fredette) at Pitt. Heck, give me Steve Fisher's San Diego State Aztecs rolling in to Duke to face the Blue Devils and their crazed fans. Who wouldn't watch that?!

There will be myriad rivalry games played for territorial pride, and people will watch. I get that. But the rest of us will just catch the scores in the morning.

Face it, the only real "must watch" game this season occurred when the nation's then-Nos. 1 and 2 women's teams -- UConn and Baylor -- faced off in November, featuring Griner and reigning Player of the Year, Huskie Maya Moore. A month later, when Stanford (full alma-mater disclosure here) ended still-No. 1 UConn's historic 90-game win streak with a 71-59 victory, the game achieved a 1.5 rating on ESPN, making it the most-watched women's game ever on the network. (During the final 15 minutes, the rating was a staggering 3.1.)

And yet, even that game is considered as just a possible prelim to the two teams meeting late in the NCAA women's dance.

Last week, just after another massive storm pounded the Northeast and much of the Midwest was buried (yet again) under enormous snowfalls, I found solace in the calendar. "At least it's February," I said to myself, repeatedly. "Only days until March."

And I wasn't only talking about the weather.

Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

MORE COMMENTARY