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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
College hoops primed to fill NBA void

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

NBA stars are talking about embarking on their own world tour, a four-continent, six-game exhibition run.

Call it "American Idol, Roundball Edition." Yes, there will be a lot of talent assembled but not a lot of substance. Seeing LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade on one court surely will attract attention, but this is little more than a traveling NBA All-Star Game, where the only result that matters is the paycheck at game's end.

Derrick Rose
If Derrick Rose and the Bulls aren't playing this winter, will fans get their fix by watching college ball?

And six games, no matter how much star quality they might contain, do not equate to 82. Not even in the fuzzy elementary school world of new math.

So what's a hoops junkie to do with his or her downtime?

Ron Artest already was booted from "Dancing With the Stars," after all.

Time to start that new personal fitness routine? Catch up on some great literature?

How about watch basketball?

Just as college football was poised to step into the void before the NFL averted its disaster, college basketball is waiting in the wings for its star turn.

The question: Will fans make like Derrick Rose and cross over? Will folks in Indy ditch their Pacers jerseys in favor of Butler blue? Do Jim Larranaga's talents in South Beach replace those of LeBron and D-Wade?

History says no.

During the NBA's previous lockout, which ended in February 1999, the average attendance at more than 4,000 college games rose by a grand total of six people -- from 5,193 people in 1998 to 5,199 in 1999.

Blame different rules or different loyalties, but whatever the reason collegiate and professional fan bases rarely switch allegiances.

"It's almost like they're two different sets of fans," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who spent four years coaching in the NBA. "Now will some of those fans want to watch college basketball? Probably. Are they going to start buying college basketball tickets and throw NBA to the south? No, they won't."

Since 1998-99, though, one critical thing has changed. Thanks to the NBA's age limit, approved in the previous collective bargaining agreement in 2005, today's college stars are tomorrow's NBA stars. Take away the books and the mascots, and college basketball is basically the NBA's minor league system.

That should, at the very least, up the curiosity factor.

What really ought to entice folks to reach for their letterman sweater is the quality of basketball the college game is expected to showcase this year.

Let's face it. Last season was the NCAA's equivalent of a lockout. Yes, there were terrific storylines and wildly entertaining upsets, but for sheer basketball superiority? Avert your eyes.

VCU and Butler made for a fun Final Four … until the ball went up. That the two mid-major darlings played in an elimination semifinal while the big boys battled on the other side all but killed the drama and intrigue in Houston.

And the national title game between the Bulldogs and Connecticut will forever be set to the soundtrack of clanking.

The best player in the country was a 6-foot kid with an 8-foot heart, whose run to an unexpected national title helped create a legend. Sort of like that 6-2 Mormon kid who somehow built up a cult-like following bordering on teen heartthrob insanity. It was the kind of year a college basketball purist could appreciate for its zaniness, but not the sort that would make for a whole bunch of converts.

Jared Sullinger
Players like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger will make this college basketball season appealing.

This season is shaping up to be the exact opposite.

Even the casual fan can appreciate the name branding at the top of the heap -- North Carolina and Kentucky, Ohio State and Connecticut, Syracuse and Duke. Those are names and programs that resonate even in the most die-hard NBA corners of the basketball populace.

More than teams, though, it is the players who will make this season especially appealing. The delicious irony is that college basketball is better in some part due to the instability of the NBA.

Plenty of college players rolled the dice and left for the NBA early, undeterred by a potential lockout. But more than a fair share stayed. Sophomores, that rare archaeological find in the college game, are everywhere, and the sport is the better for it. The NBA bills itself as a player's league, but really what sport isn't athlete-dominated? No one is tuning in on Sunday afternoons to see how Andy Reid coaches.

Sports aren't terribly complicated. Find people who can perform extraordinary physical feats, stand back and watch them compete.

In college basketball this season, the extraordinary comes in big (Jared Sullinger) and small (Tu Holloway) packages, not to mention in packs of Zellers and Plumlees, and traverses the nation from Spokane (Elias Harris) to Olean (Andrew Nicholson).

Heck, when North Carolina visits Kentucky on Dec. 3, the marketing departments might as well bill it as an NBA draft party.

Just how many new fans the college game attracts will depend largely on how long the NBA keeps its arenas shuttered. A few Wednesday and Friday nights without the NBA on TV is one thing. A few months' worth is another.

And no doubt as soon as Kobe & Co. are back in business, the fans will return with them. Sports fans have proven to be nothing if not lemmings.

In the interim, though, in those long boring nights without basketball's biggest stars, the others orbiting in the next satellite over will be glad to step in.

Some of the NBA players might be going on tour, but college basketball is ready to command center stage.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.