Friday, February 8, 2013

Making the case for college basketball

Associated Press
In this week’s Sports Illustrated, every page aside from the regular departments is devoted to the Super Bowl and SI’s “NFL Off-season Preview.”

Going by that indicator, the only thing America is looking for as a post-Super Bowl sports fix is more football.

Even more, one of the usual alternatives this time of year – college basketball – is even less interesting. So says a blog posted from Atlanta, the home of this year’s Final Four, which states the sport “has gone sour.”

The blog is down on college hoops because scoring is low and brand names including North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA are not up to their usual standards. That’s in addition to the usual complaints about one-and-dones and the regular season not meaning anything.

That blog couldn’t be more wrong. Just because a few bluebloods aren’t in the top 10 and there is no slam-dunk No. 1 pick in the draft dominating the ACC doesn’t mean college basketball has “gone sour.”

This season has been great. If you tuned into the Ohio State-Michigan game on Tuesday to help cure a post-NFL hangover, you saw a slice of what’s been happening all winter – great games between evenly matched teams. Michigan held on in OT, 76-74. Two nights later, Illinois upset No. 1 Indiana, 74-72, in a buzzer-beating layup. That’s just the Big Ten.

The Hoosiers’ loss was the fifth straight week the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll has gone down. But that’s not bad, that’s good. Halfway through the conference season, you could put about 20 teams in a hat and pull them out four at a time, and you’d have five good Final Fours.

A similar drawing with the top 10 candidates for national player of the year could be held because there are that many candidates. But this is where college basketball’s perception problems come in.

None of this year’s top players are like Kevin Durant in 2007 or Anthony Davis last year – awesome players bound for NBA greatness. Some will have great careers, but we don’t know which ones yet.

Yes, having more recognizable players would help college basketball. So would more contrast in styles, because it seems like almost every school runs an offense that involves guards dribbling around until someone shoots a 3-pointer. Games have too many timeouts, too.

But instead of worrying about college basketball isn’t or what it doesn’t have, let’s look at what has been happening.

As evidenced by Ohio State-Michigan, Illinois’ win, TCU’s monster upset of Kansas and UCLA’s buzzer-beater in a span of three days, the regular season is pretty darn good. And that was just this week.

What’s more about this season is it’s going to be a wild ride to Selection Sunday on March 17, and a school like Butler doesn’t have to worry about getting screwed over by the BCS. Unlike college football, North Carolina and Kentucky aren't automatically slotted into the tournament if they get a certain amount of wins, like a bowl-game tie-in. The Tar Heels and Wildcats are on the bubble, and if they get in it will be because they earned it.

Did the Illini’s dramatic win over Indiana, coupled with wins over Ohio State, Butler and at Gonzaga punch their ticket to the Big Dance? Who knows, because Illinois is still only 3-7 in the Big Ten (16-8 overall).

The one way to find out is to keep watching. It’s a lot better than the NFL offseason.

- Howard Primer


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