This could easily become a yearly plea.
We played this song last year, and we’ll do it again.
There has been slight improvement in recent years with at least a single starting date, but the truth remains: even many of the more avid (if not completely hard core) fans don’t know when the college basketball season starts, and will be surprised when they start seeing games showing up on TV and scores like “Shenandoah 58 Bucknell 85” running on the bottom of their screen.
Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis recently suggested Veteran’s Day as a yearly opening date for college hoops. We appreciate his continued thoughtfulness, and while not always agreeing with his ideas (including this one), it’s great to have someone like Davis who is always looking for ways to improve the sport, without losing track of what is already great about it.
We still would counter that Thanksgiving weekend is the perfect time to start the season, just as it was for many years before gradually slipping away in the early 1990s.
There is nothing magical about beginning the season in the middle of November. College football-even at the small-college levels-is still in season. The NFL is loading up for its stretch run. The NBA just started and hasn’t settled into its slog stage just yet. Shoot, even NASCAR is still going. There is just too much to filter through for the average fan.
By starting the day after Thanksgiving, the majority of college football season has passed. Even if there are a few conference championship games or conferences trying to stretch the gridiron season a little longer to minimize time between championships and bowl games, when it comes to college sports, if the calendar is near December, it’s time to start turning eyes indoors.
Thanksgiving weekend allows a natural opportunity for holiday events to open the season. The Great Alaska Shootout and Maui Classic (now Invitational) became holiday traditions on that weekend. There’s room for a few others too, as well as those four-team “classics” popular for many years.
If some really want to see the sport do a slow drip into the season with a single event, the preseason NIT in its original form in the 1980s and 1990s was perfect.
Let’s face it: for the average fan, tournaments are what make college basketball. It’s not star players-not anymore, anyway, in our one-and-done or two-and-out era. It’s not glitzy teams-even the pull of Duke or Kentucky only goes so far on a national basis.
A stand-alone tournament with 16 teams from conferences around the country was in the past and would still be about the nearest thing one could produce to an NCAA Tournament to start the season. There’s no reason why the preseason NIT can’t be the opening event again.
Include top teams as well as teams from 16 different conferences. End it the day after Thanksgiving in Madison Square Garden when everyone else is beginning. The first round games can look something like this:
Iona at Villanova
Wofford at Duke
Evansville at Indiana
Northern Arizona at Arizona
South Dakota State at Iowa State
UC Irvine at San Diego State
Georgia State at LSU
William & Mary at UAB
Do fans know every one of these teams? No, but if you choose them well, they’ll recognize most of them from recent March brackets of their own.
Are these slightly riskier games for the home teams than a guarantee game? Sure.
Do they generate more interest for fans? Absolutely. And if the top teams advance as they would be expected to, they still provide a natural lead into the start of the season for everyone else. If there’s an upset or two in there, then that’s just fine. That’s college basketball.
For the sake of the sport as a whole, the focus needs to be on quality games to start the year, not occasionally highlighting a single team or player. This year’s opening night TV lineup includes Siena at Duke and McNeese State at LSU.
Both games will showcase the sport-briefly. Let’s be real-unless one is a fan of those four teams, there is about a 3% chance that they’re going to watch those games from start-to-finish.
Of course, an event like this may hurt some of the in-season exempted tournaments. So be it. There are more than enough of them already. The sport won’t be hurt one bit if it loses a few of these newer events that have drawn puny crowds in warm weather locations.
As for not being enough time to play an entire schedule; nonsense. It may require a few more two-day weekend tourneys. Again, nothing wrong with that. Outside of conference play, this sport is at its best in tournament form.
If the sport is really serious about growth, this is something it needs to take on. A few schools or a few third-party organizers may have to make a few sacrifices. That’s OK. There is not just potential for college basketball to do better with its opening-there is a proven blueprint.