Commentary

College basketball has a big feel again

Originally Published: November 7, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

It isn't easy being a die-hard college basketball fan. Frankly, the past decade has been pretty rough.

First, the high school-to-NBA era robbed college hoops of the nation's best emerging talents. Then the one-and-done era that ensued created a constant churn of elite turnover, when learning the names of the best players in the college game meant scouring recruiting boards and YouTube mixtapes -- knowing last year's rosters was barely half the battle.

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AP Photo/Darron CummingsFrustrated college basketball fans should prepare themselves for shouts of joy in 2011-12.

In the meantime, even the popularity of the game has come under fire. The continued dominance of college football and the NFL has cast a long shadow over much of the regular season. More than ever before, casual fans seem to tune in just in time for the NCAA tournament.

Sometimes -- not only as a reporter but as a fan -- you want to shake people and remind them that the season starts in November. It's college basketball! Why aren't you guys watching?

Throw in last year's attention-sucking LeBron James NBA drama, the recent waves of football-oriented conference realignment and a marked increase in NCAA scandal and cynicism, and you have college basketball feeling somewhat like a besieged niche.

That's set to change in 2011-12 -- if not permanently, then at least temporarily. There are plenty of reasons the upcoming college basketball season is going to be bigger, badder and more entertaining than ever.

It goes deeper than the NBA lockout, too; even if the league's negotiations hadn't recently descended from "Geez, this could be bad" to "David Stern just set that dumpster on fire!" the college game would still have plenty of arrows in its quiver.

College hoops fans deserve a big year, a classic year, a year to remind us why we fell in love with this game in the first place.

Here's why we're likely to get it.

BIG PROGRAMS

Everybody loves an underdog story. Underdogs are the stuff of "Hoosiers"-style lore -- they're what makes the NCAA tournament so uniquely brilliant. With George Mason's Final Four, Butler's back-to-back national title game appearances and VCU's impossible run from the First Four to the Final Four, the past few seasons have yielded an unprecedented rise of the mid-major. It's been fun.

[+] EnlargeTerrence Jones
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesTwo of the three winningest programs of all-time begin the season 1-2 in the polls.

Still, when it comes to generating interest, there's no substitute for good old-fashioned branding. The 2011-12 hoops season should have more than its fair share of that.

The top four teams entering the season -- North Carolina, Kentucky, Connecticut and Ohio State -- are all elite programs with national followings. What's more, the top 15 is chock-full of big hoops entities: Duke, Syracuse, Florida, Louisville, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Kansas, Wisconsin.

If you're a casual fan quickly catching up on the game, and you don't know the difference between Festus Ezeli and Festivus, your job is awfully easy. The teams that you'd expect to be good are going to be good. Easy, huh?

BIG COACHES

Look at that top 10 again. Notice anything? Besides the blue bloods, there is a distinctly noticeable whiff of Hall of Famer among this season's expected favorites. Six of the coaches in the top 10 of the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll have won national titles: North Carolina's Roy Williams, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Louisville's Rick Pitino and Florida's Billy Donovan have all had at least One Shining Moment.

You might argue that the college coaching ranks have never been deeper. Look at the Top 25. Kentucky's John Calipari, Ohio State's Thad Matta and Pitt's Jamie Dixon are perennial contenders chasing that first, elusive national title, while up-and-comers like Memphis' Josh Pastner and Baylor's Scott Drew will each lead hypertalented teams well within striking distance. Bill Self's Kansas teams are always lurking; Xavier's Chris Mack is one of the country's hottest young minds; Arizona's Sean Miller is recruiting as well as anyone in the country; and Wisconsin's Bo Ryan has forged a can't-miss Madison style.

Marquette's Buzz Williams is the poster child for intelligent, efficiency-based scouting; Gonzaga's Mark Few is as steady as ever; Alabama's Anthony Grant has the Crimson Tide looking like a force; Michigan's John Beilein just keeps improving the Wolverines; and on and on and on.

If you want to look outside the Top 25, let's not forget about Tom Izzo, Jay Wright, Bob Huggins, Rick Barnes, Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart, Frank Martin and Dave Rose, among many others. The bottom line? A sport that has always been defined by Hall of Fame coaches will see more of those coaches in winning position that at any time in recent years.

If you're a basketball nerd -- the kind of person who writes emails to his rec league team about the strategy of the 1-3-1 zone -- the hair just stood up on the back of your neck. Do not be alarmed. That is normal.

BIG NAMES

It's been tempting to look at the NBA lockout -- which we'll discuss more below -- as an either-or proposition. If there's no professional basketball, then NBA fans will have to watch college hoops, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. When we look back in five years, though, it seems more likely that the lockout's effect on the 2011-12 season will be felt for what happened before the lockout was a sure thing, when some of the best freshmen in the country decided to become sophomores.

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AP Photo/Terry GilliamA slimmed-down and toned Jared Sullinger is primed for a monster season in Columbus.

Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is the preseason player of the year. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes is expected to lead the Tar Heels to a national title. The same can be said of Kentucky forward Terrence Jones. Perry Jones III might have been the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, but instead he stuck around Baylor and should have a dominant sophomore season. These four players are the poster children of last spring's NBA decision deadline, when decisions came fast and furious and the looming lockout cast a shadow over everything.

In recent seasons, the best freshman talent in the country has usually done the reasonable thing: left college basketball for the NBA. This year, the reasonable thing, at least for many, was to stay. That has created a rare talent crunch: Many of last season's best college basketball players are back again, but they are joined by yet another bumper crop of talent, one of the deepest recruiting classes in years. Impact freshmen include Kentucky's trio of stars (Marquis Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis), Duke's Austin Rivers, Connecticut's Andre Drummond, Florida's Bradley Beal, Baylor's Quincy Miller, Memphis' Adonis Thomas -- all of whom are top-10 recruits and likely future NBA lottery picks, and all of whom are joining top teams with big-time aspirations.

They join a landscape that already, per the usual, has classic college hoops veteran guards like Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor (a preseason All-American), Xavier's Tu Holloway, Vanderbilt's John Jenkins, Missouri's Marcus Denmon and Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs.

Then there are the emerging players, such as Kansas big man Thomas Robinson, Texas A&M forward Khris Middleton, Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. and UCLA center Josh Smith.

In recent seasons, college hoops has rarely -- if ever -- had a deeper or more talented landscape. You'd have to go back years, before the one-and-done era and before high school draft picks became fashionable -- back when the game didn't seem quite so much like a means to an end.

No wonder this feels like a classic college hoops season. Judging by the sheer talent spread across the country, it should be.

BIG MATCHUPS

If college basketball has occasionally languished in the public imagination over the past decade, it can lay some of the blame at its own feet. Why? No one knows when the season actually begins. With all the exhibitions and guarantee games many teams play early in the season, it's often been difficult to know when the preseason ends and the real season begins. Sometimes it's just easier to wait until after the Super Bowl.

[+] EnlargeThe USS Carl Vinson and its sailors have attracted considerable attention since early May, when the carrier was used to bury Osama bin Laden at sea after he was killed by Navy SEALs.
Ed Jones/Getty ImagesIt doesn't get much bigger than No. 1 UNC opening against Michigan State on the USS Carl Vinson.

That's not the case this year.* More than ever before, the sport has lined up the sort of early-season events that are guaranteed to get fans talking in mid-November.

First is the Carrier Classic, Friday's massive North Carolina-Michigan State game, which will indeed take place on an aircraft carrier -- the San Diego-docked USS Carl Vinson, to be exact. President Obama will attend. Armed forces personnel will get the lion's share of the seats. Special camouflage uniforms will be worn. A clunky trophy will be awarded. If that doesn't get you to tune in, I don't know what will.

But there's more: On Nov. 15, the Tip-Off Marathon -- complete with a live chat from yours truly (shameless plug, I know) -- will kick off the season with 24 consecutive hours of basketball, and those hours will include a new event called the Champions Classic. This year, in Madison Square Garden, Duke will face Michigan State and Kansas will take on Kentucky. The same night, Florida and Ohio State meet in Columbus for a top-10 matchup.

A week later, the Maui Invitational's championship rounds will feature what has to be the most tradition-rich field in the tournament's history, with Duke, UCLA, Memphis, Michigan, Kansas, Tennessee and Georgetown battling it out on the island.

The point being: More than ever before, there's a lot to get excited about in the first few weeks of the college hoops season. We get to see big-time teams play in big-time venues -- one of which is, in case it needed repeating, the most advanced warship in the history of the human race -- and we get to do it right away. We've been counting down the days since April, and it's almost here. I wouldn't recommend missing any of it.

(*OK, so this week is a tad confusing: There are three games tonight, three games Wednesday, and 126 on Friday. Technically, today is the start of the season. Technically. But really, things tip off Friday. Sort of. See what I mean?)

BIG OPPORTUNITY

Then, of course, there is the lockout. As my colleague Dana O'Neil wrote last week, there's little evidence that the lack of an NBA season will suddenly cause NBA fans to buy college hoops tickets in spades. While it's sometimes hard for someone like me, a professed fan of both the college and pro games, to often understand, there is a certain disconnect between die-hard NBA and college hoops fans. Demographically and geographically, the two cross over less than you'd think.

But if I know basketball fans, I know they'll have to get their fix in somehow. That doesn't mean they'll start showing up at college games. But it does mean, in the absence of the pro game, that more fans than ever will want to watch college hoops on TV.

They will have plenty to choose from, too. For example, something called ESPN plans to air more college football and basketball games during the NBA's former slots on Wednesday and Friday nights. And without all those dunks and deep 3s to show on "SportsCenter," the average sports fan will almost certainly get an increased diet of college hoops (and hockey, too!), even if he or she doesn't intentionally seek it out.

There's no getting around it: This is a big -- there's that word again -- opportunity for the college game.

ONE VERY BIG FINAL FOUR

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AP Photo/Rob CarrWhen the Superdome hosts a Final Four, it simply always produces an instant classic. It's just science.

There was a time, not so long ago, when a college basketball game in a 70,000-seat arena felt like an epic gladiatorial event. These days, we just call that the Final Four.

But there's a distinctly classic air to this season's Final Four venue, the venerable Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. The Final Four was first held in the Superdome in 1982 -- 15 years before the NCAA decided that all Final Four venues must have at least 40,000 seats to qualify for the event.

In recent years, most Final Fours have gone to new football stadiums built for NFL teams. Indy's Lucas Oil Stadium, site of the 2010 event, is a gigantic new structure that feels like a fieldhouse on steroids. Houston's Reliant Arena, home to the 2011 Final Four, is a hulking Texas-sized homage to the state's, and our nation's, fascination with large men in pads colliding at high speeds.

Both are beautiful, clean and almost breathtakingly sterile. Neither contains a shred of basketball history -- or any history, for that matter. They are 30-theater multiplexes. And I, for one, think college basketball is best viewed at the art house.

In 1982, at what you might call the first Final Four of the modern sports-o-plex era, a player who would come to define American sports' globalization and commercialism hit the first of many game-winning shots. His name was Michael Jordan.

If we can't have the Final Four in a 7,000-seat fieldhouse -- if we have to ensure the sale of at least 40,000 tickets -- we could do much worse the aging, lovable old Superdome, which was also site of Keith Smart's memorable game-winner for Indiana in the 1987 title game, Chris Webber's infamous timeout in the 1993 championship and Syracuse's late block of Kansas in 2003.

The return to such a historic site is only fitting. If all goes well, this will be a classic college hoops season. In five months, it will end in a classic Final Four venue. What could be better than that?

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. Amateur bracketologists, begin your calculations. Partisan die-hards, bust out the face paint. Student sections, prepare your chants. You deserve it.

The season -- this joyously promise-filled season -- is finally here.

Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can see his work every Monday through Friday in the College Basketball Nation blog. To contact Eamonn, e-mail collegebasketballnation@gmail.com or reach him on Twitter (@eamonnbrennan).