Are You Excited Yet?
by Phil Kasiecki
College basketball fans, it’s that time of the year again. Midnight Madness has come and gone as teams have begun preparing for the 2002-03 college basketball season. The Road to the Final Four leads to New Orleans this time around, and it is about to be occupied by 326 teams. 325 teams will take an exit somewhere along the way, some later in time and closer to the desired destination than others. Only one of them will reach the promised land at the end of the road: college basketball’s national championship.
As always, with the new season comes many changes, from players who graduated and the new kids on the block in the form of freshmen and transfers to coaches who opted to take on new opportunities and ones who did not get the job done for a particular school. As players continue to leave school early or bypass college altogether to try to make it in the NBA, junior college recruiting is becoming more and more important, as some coaches choose not to go for players who may leave school before their four years of eligibility are used up. Additionally, freshman are asked to contribute sooner on many teams as a result, with fewer teams having the luxury of bringing them along under the tutelage of a veteran. Changes are continuing in recruiting regulations, many of which make recruiting more difficult for college coaches and just add bureaucracy that does not necessarily solve any problems.
Last season saw the continued rise of many mid-major schools in the world of college basketball. While every season has a story or two with a mid-major team pulling off a big upset in the NCAA Tournament or even just getting an at-large bid, or an early season upset, last season had mid-major stories throughout the season. Ball State broke into the top 25 early in the season with wins over Kansas and UCLA. Butler started the season with 10 straight wins. Southern Illinois had an excellent season and reached the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, falling to Connecticut. The Ivy League had its best season in many years, improving from 28th to 13th in the RPI ratings while a three-way tie for first led to its first ever playoff; all three teams saw postseason play. Gonzaga, the granddaddy of them all (much as head coach Mark Few does not want his program called a mid-major now), not only cracked the top 25, but was in the top 10 at the end of the regular season with a 29-3 record and another West Coast Conference championship. Many felt that the number 6 seed they received in the NCAA Tournament was an injustice even before Wyoming upset them in the first round. Their own conference rival, Pepperdine, received an at-large bid.
Gonzaga’s NCAA Tournament fate points to something that has not changed despite the rise of mid-major schools in recent times: high-major schools and conferences still benefit from their standing. Two seasons ago, Georgia made the NCAA Tournament with a 16-14 record on the basis of having the nation’s toughest schedule; not only did they make it, but they did not even get the last at-large bid as they were a number 8 seed. Temple has made the NCAA Tournament several times with a similar record on the basis of a tough non-conference schedule as well. Meanwhile, mid-major teams that won games all season long and against quality competition would be left out or get a bad seed, as Gonzaga did. In other words, high-majors are being rewarded for playing one another even if they don’t win many of the games, while mid-majors are not rewarded for winning.
Those who defend the high-major programs say that mid-majors need to play the high-major schools in non-conference play so that the NCAA Tournament committee will take notice. The argument is that mid-majors don’t receive much television exposure unless they play big-name schools, and they have to play them before conference play because their conferences are weaker. It makes sense and sounds good until another reality of high-major teams benefiting from their standing has to be brought up: the bigger school can simply refuse to play mid-major schools and load up on schools from the lowest depths of Division I. Some schools are notorious for cupcake non-conference schedules year in and year out; in recent times, mid-major coaches have mentioned trying to get games against high-major schools, but they either could not get an agreement on a home-and-home or the other school simply would not go for it. Some high-major schools would rather shy away from mid-major teams for fear that a loss would hurt their chances at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. But cases like Georgia and Temple show that this fear is unfounded against the backdrop of NCAA Tournament history, as they are much less likely to get the shaft from the committee than a mid-major team if it came down to that.
ESPN is hoping to change that this season, as they have made deals with 18 college basketball teams to play in an event called Bracket Buster Saturday, to be held on February 22. Currently, only one matchup is all set, as Tulsa will travel to Spokane, Washington to take on Gonzaga. All in all, 18 teams will play in nine games, with the remaining eight matchups to be determined on February 3. The teams ESPN chose are based on pre-season projections, which leaves open the possibility that some teams may not stand to gain much from it simply because they are not at all performing to expectations and have no chance at an at-large bid. That will not diminish its overall value, which will be seen in the exposure of successful programs that are not in major conferences to common fans of college basketball.
The rise of mid-majors is just one reason why college basketball is always exciting. On any given night, a team at the bottom of a poor conference could knock off a top 25 team. There are few “sure bets” in the world of college basketball today, as we continue to see in the regular season and in the NCAA Tournament. The race for the Louisiana Superdome in March should be a joy to watch for any college basketball observer, as many teams are sure to put forth a good showing and make a run for the Final Four. Add in the usual excitement of conference tournaments and their impact on teams fighting to grab one of the last at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament or get an automatic one, and March Madness is sure to be as exciting this season as in any other season.
We at Hoopville intend to give you top-flight analysis of the excitement of this season, from tip-off to the final buzzer. Additionally, we will tell you about some of the next generation of college stars with some coverage of in-season high school tournaments. For me, this primarily entails attending games at Boston-area schools, notably Boston College, Providence, Northeastern, Boston University, Harvard, Brown, and Rhode Island. It will also include games out of town, including a few high school tournaments.
Here is a look at my tentative season calendar highlights:
November 23-24: War on the Shore prep school tournament (Milford, DE)
November 29, 2002: Tip-Off Classic: Alabama vs. Ohio State (Springfield, MA)
December 7, 2002: Tripleheader at The Palestra (Philadelphia, PA)
December 15, 2002: Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl Classic for Kids (Atlanta, GA)
December 26-30, 2002: Slam Dunk to the Beach Tournament (Lewes, DE)
January 4, 2003: North Carolina at Miami (Miami, FL)
January 18-20, 2003: Flyin’ to the Hoop (Dayton, OH)
February 8-9, 2003: Prime Time Shootout (Trenton, NJ)
March 9-10, 2003: America East Tournament (Boston University, Boston, MA)
Championship Week: Conference tournament, to be determined between Big 12 (Dallas, TX), Big Ten (Chicago, IL), Pacific Ten (Los Angeles, CA)
March 20-22, 2003: NCAA Tournament, First and Second Rounds (Boston, MA)
You may have noticed one item in there that is not an in-season tournament – North Carolina at Miami on January 4, 2003. I will be in Miami for the Orange Bowl on January 2, and will spend a few more days down there after it. While I am there, it will be nice to see the University of Miami open up the brand new on-campus Convocation Center. After that, a good matchup between a Hurricanes team with some good returning players but needing newcomers in the backcourt to come through, and a North Carolina team with three McDonald’s All-Americans heading its bumper crop of freshmen.
I hope you are as excited as I am for the 2002-03 season of college basketball. Let the games begin, and may the best team win.