First off, wishing a blessed and Merry Christmas to all.
The holidays once belonged to college basketball, and in particular tournament play.
Here’s hoping what has gone around comes back around again.
Like most sports, college basketball has traditionally played only sparsely on Christmas Day-the Diamond Head Classic currently finishes up on Dec. 25, and most notably in the past the Chaminade Christmas Classic tourney did the same in the 1980s. That’s perfectly acceptable-the holiday is special and holds great meaning for so many, and it goes without saying that, with limited exceptions, sports fans’ entertainment should not supersede that.
Going back for decades though, the sport traditionally has played tournaments around the holidays, including a number of prestigious and once-prestigious events. The Far West Classic was an eight-team Portland tradition for more than 30 years, while the Holiday Festival also was a premier showcase, hosting eight teams every year at Madison Square Garden. Both were played after Christmas but before New Year’s.
Looking at Thanksgiving, the Great Alaska Shootout and Maui Invitational have developed into longstanding traditions. At the high school level, holiday invitationals are still extremely popular on Thanksgiving weekend and over the Christmas and holiday breaks. It makes sense; at its best, basketball is a tournament sport.
The Far West Classic disappeared years ago, while the Holiday Festival and Great Alaska Shootout have diminished in stature. The Maui Invitational is still among the elite events for now, but that could slip away quickly if its TV partner decided it would prefer to focus on the exempted events it promotes. The Rainbow Classic, unofficially a predecessor of the Diamond Head, still continues today, but is now one of those exempted “tourneys” that is just a glorified round-robin.
The talk never ends of how the college basketball regular season is meaningless. While those following the sport closely know otherwise, it never hurts to look for ways to spice up areas of the season that could use it, and the non-conference portion of the year certainly can use it.
The sport should get back to playing more holiday tournaments again, especially after Christmas and before New Year’s. There’s no reason to cede the week to guarantee games and the glut of college football bowl games that is a good 20+ more now than it needs to be. If ESPN is not interested, then other networks should get on the ball and go for it.
To help things along, the entire exempted tournament qualification also needs to be fixed by the NCAA. No more loopholes giving passes to promoters playing round-robin schedules to fulfill the minimums for an exemption and then passing their preferred foursome automatically through semifinals. Events should be true tournament formats, start to finish, and they should feature schools, conferences and home cities having the primary role in putting them on, not TV networks or third-party organizers. Those events are more likely to draw a home gathering than yet another event in Las Vegas.
If looking for quantity, then let’s add more of the old four-team tournaments again, like the Sun Bowl Invitational which UTEP recently hosted for the 54th straight year. Regardless of the competition or the location, it’s still an accomplishment to win a tournament. Even in a worst-case scenario, it certainly beats playing a guarantee game with virtually no stakes but to see whether the hosts can score enough points for free tacos for all students in attendance.
Oregon State recently revived the Far West Classic name this year, beginning with a pair of doubleheaders in Portland. Beavers coach Wayne Tinkle is attempting to buck the odds and is hopeful to build the tournament back up to its past status as one of the sport’s premier events, even while understanding the climate is against it right now.
Tinkle and Oregon State’s attempt is a good one, worth far more than just a good nostalgia trip. It’s a template for what tournaments in the sport should be, and what the holidays can be for the sport too. Christmas and Thanksgiving with families is a good thing. After those holidays is a perfect time then to catch some good basketball.
- The Diamond Head Classic concludes today, highlighted by the championship game between Oklahoma and Harvard (8:30 p.m. EST, ESPN2). The Sooners will be heavy favorites, but the Crimson has made a nice run to the championship game and has a chance to register a memorable title game upset. Incredible statistic to gnaw on: OU enters this game shooting 47.2% from three-point range for the season. Hard to imagine the Sooners (or any team) can keep that up all season.
- Other games include host Hawai’i against Auburn for third place (6 p.m., ESPN2), BYU taking on Northern Iowa for fifth (3:30 p.m., ESPNU) and New Mexico against Washington State for seventh. Besides heavy favorite Oklahoma, this tournament has been incredibly balanced.
- A news item from Wednesday: TCU announced that former Texas A&M guard Alex Robinson is transferring to the school. Robinson is a former four-star recruit and an excellent athlete who got lost in some numbers at A&M this year. He did not play this year but averaged 5.2 points and 2.6 assists per game last year as a freshman.