The first decade of the 21st century was a good one for college basketball fans, especially from a viewing perspective. ESPN and CBS have both created college sports-focused networks, with conferences getting in on the act as well, both on television and in that wacky new medium, the Internet. That means there are now an overwhelming number of games to watch on most nights of the regular season.
When it comes to March, things are even better, since you can watch every Tournament game online for free and on satellite for a reasonable fee.
While all of this exposure is great, I'm not sure that the sport is actually growing in interest. I blame this on a combination of scheduling and cynicism -- both about the players and the actual competition. With this in mind, here are three major changes (and a few nitpicky ones), I'd like to see changed before 2020.
Occasionally, someone will suggest that college basketball should move exclusively to the Winter/Spring Semester and leave the Fall behind. This would lead to some stability on teams, thanks to a bit more clarity in the student-athlete eligibility department. Teams would no longer have to play eight to ten games waiting late transfers or players with academic issues to become eligible at the beginning of the new term.
The downside to shifting the season is that March Madness would have to move to a later point in the Spring. This isn't the greatest idea from the student-athlete or student-fan perspective, as many schools have Spring Break at some point during the current March-early April schedule.
Since moving the entire schedule by a month or so is impractical, what are some ways to bump up the interest level in college basketball, particularly before March?
I propose two simple scheduling changes, both of which impact early season showcases that get lost in the November/December American sports shuffle.
Early Season Tournaments
Over the Christmas and New Year's period, it dawned on me that there wasn't quite as much going on in the sports world as there used to be.
Christmas Day is overrun by the NBA, which doesn't excite me much, and the day after isn't much better. This season, there was only a single college basketball game slated for December 26th.
Thanks to the BCS, there aren't as many bowl games on New Year's Day as there were a few years ago. In fact, after 4 p.m. Eastern, there's only one game to watch at a time. What's the fun in that?
On the other hand, the many college basketball tournaments that happen during Thanksgiving weekend get lost, thanks to a weekend heavy on college football rivalries and key NFL contests.
My solution is to shift some of those early-season tournament, especially the ones that have become marginalized thanks to ESPN's entry in the basketball event business, to the time between Christmas and New Year's.
ESPN started the Diamond Head Classic to surround the Hawaii Bowl over Christmas week. They're also starting a new tournament will be held in Cancun this coming December, though the actual dates aren't clear yet. I'm going to guess that the Cancun Governor's Cup will be scheduled to complement the event in Hawaii, thanks to the time difference between the islands and the North American continent. But if it's not, it wouldn't be difficult to find or create an event to for December 22, 23 and 25.
You could also have a tournament or two that conclude on New Year's Eve, which has become a basketball heavy day for ESPN2, or New Year's Day itself. Perhaps the Great Alaska Shootout, a formerly great tournament that's fallen on hard times, could slide into this window. Another option is the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, an event that seems to get a good field, but also suffers from a mediocre television deal.
This would provide a few teams with one final test before conference play begins, with the added benefit of not taking place right out of the gate. New Year's Day probably won't be an option once ESPN takes over BCS rights with the upcoming football season, but turning December 31st into a showcase of meaningful college basketball as an alternative to the day's ultimately meaningless bowl games sounds like a good idea to me.
For my second schedule tweak, I'm going to remind you that it's now January, though I know a lot of you wish it was a few months later in the year, thanks to a miserable winter. January means that teams are starting the grind of the conference season. For me, this is the most boring time of the year, which may sound like blasphemy to some of you.
Dull winter weekends could use a little excitement, and with many conferences now starting play in December anyway, let's jazz them up a little.
My suggestion is to move another fixture of the early season, the now ubiquitous conference challenges, to late January-early February. This is something I wrote about in more detail on my site during the offseason.
The benefits of this are numerous. Broadcasters would get some marquee intersectional matchups to sell at the time people are starting to realize that college basketball is going on. Teams would get a temporary break from the conference grind, along with a nice test to bridge the gap between the non-conference season and March.
For the six BCS leagues, this could be done over three weekends. One pairing could take the weekend of the bye week before the Super Bowl, because who really cares about the Pro Bowl. The other two pairs could take the weekends following the Super Bowl.
With challenges shifted from December to late January and early February, you could also set up a whole group of matchups that actually help determine Tournament selection and seeding. Games could be scheduled much like the BracketBusters are. Assign teams as home or away before the season starts, then pair them up in early January based on their results. That certainly beats setting matchups in the offseason, a necessity for early season challenges.
Also, would it hurt to shake things up a little? It may not be a bad idea to implement a rotation system, so we don't have the same conferences paired every year. How about bringing back the ACC-Big East Challenge for a couple of seasons? Or starting a Pac-10/SEC event, since those two fanbases seem to have an irrational dislike for one another?
Now that I've fixed the schedule, it's time to address some cynicism, starting with an NCAA Tournament tweak.
There's only one change necessary. It's a simple one. And here's a hint, it's not expansion.
Get rid of the play-in game.
The University of Dayton does an amazing job hosting the event every year, and the community provides an incredible level of support for the event. The atmosphere is so unbelievable that I would love to be a part of it just once, even as a detractor of the "Opening Round" concept.
But it simply isn't fair. For me, the most exciting moments in the Tournament happen during the First Round, when the schools few have heard of take on the big boys. While there are blowouts, the unexpected does happen on occasion. Yet for one team that wins its conference every year, the Committee basically deprives it of the chance of causing a shock, even if it's a temporary one that only lasts for a half.
The play-in also affects certain conferences more than others. Outside of the inaugural matchup of this incarnation of the Opening Round in 2001, every matchup has featured either the MEAC or SWAC champions. In many years, you could make the case that both champions of the HBCU conferences should have been slotted for Dayton. The Selection Committee, aware of the controversy that would cause, has never gone this route.
That means occasionally a slightly stronger team may be forced into the Opening Round. Two that jump immediately into my mind are Monmouth in 2006 and Niagara in 2007.
Play-in winners have also acquitted themselves well in the main draw on occasion. Look at the fight Morehead State put up against Louisville just last season, and how Monmouth hung with Villanova for much of their game in 2006. Would the Eagles or Hawks have become the first 16 seed to topple a 1 had they not had to play on Tuesday night? Probably not. However, we'll never know how well they would have done if they didn't have to play that extra game.
Finally, dropping two 16 seeds to the Opening Round causes a ripple effect throughout the lower seed lines. Inevitably, you end up with a 13 who would be a 12 if the play-in didn't exist, and we all know that 5 vs. 12 games are always ones to watch. Sure, the tournament has one less at-large team, but is that really that big of a loss? For every success, like Missouri making the Elite Eight as a 12th-seeded at-large in 2002 and Villanova and Arizona reaching the Regional Semifinals as 12s in 2008 and 2009, you have a 13th-seeded Air Force getting trounced in 2006 or BYU losing in the First Round in 2003 and 2004.
It's time for this part of March Madness to end.
If the NCAA insists on keeping the Opening Round, change it up. Pair up those last two bubble teams for a 12 seed. This is a good idea from a business perspective. Since major conference teams who struggled to get to .500 in their leagues have a good chance at participating, there should be an increase in TV ratings. Plus, there will still be controversy to talk about, as the number of bubble teams will still be capable of saying "We're number 66!" under this format.
Sadly, I fear that if the NCAA opts out of its CBS broadcast contract after this Tournament, we're more likely to jump to 96 teams instead of back to 64. That's a change that could seriously damage the attractiveness of the event.
Now that I've adjusted the Tournament, I have a major change to the eligibility rules. This one is a no-brainer. It's time to scrap the the one-and-done rule.
Andrew Feinstein lays out a great case for getting rid of it in his NBA piece for this series.
First off, the one-and-done rule doesn't work. Frankly, it should be called the one-semester-and-done-rule. This NBA provision that a player can't join the league until the equivalent of one college year has passed or he has turned 19 only encourages NCAA basketball programs to be more sleazy and corrupt than they already were. The kids get no value out of school whatsoever (how many classes do you think O.J. Mayo attended at USC for the one semester he was actually on campus?) and the NBA still inherits raw talent that's not properly developed. It's lose-lose on both sides.
And this doesn't even address the issues with getting one-year players recruited (Eric Gordon's controversial switch from Illinois to Indiana) and eligible (think back to the Derrick Rose SAT controversy). While John Wall seems to be a serious student during what should be his only year at Kentucky, you can bet not all one-and-dones are doing the same.
Andrew brings up a way to stabilize the talent level for the college game as well.
And to not totally jerk with the NCAA, a la MLB any kid who decides to go to college must stay in college for three seasons, making NCAA basketball a much better product...and less corrupt.
And if college basketball is better, that means more people will watch, which is the whole point of this feature.
OK, that's the big stuff. But here are four small things that need to happen over the next ten years.
Bring the NCAA Tournament back to Madison Square Garden.
Yes, the World's Most Famous Arena used to be a regular host back in the early days of the Tournament, even hosting the final rounds seven times between 1943 and 1950. The 2013 East Regional is the only site left to be assigned for the next four tournaments, and the arena should be renovated by that time.
NCAA and New York City, get it done.
Get Drexel into the Philadelphia Big 5, finally.
Drexel's campus is right next to Penn's, but they still aren't included in the City Series. The Dragons have gone 8-4 in games against their Philadelphia rivals over the past four seasons, including a 3-1 mark in 2006-07. Since the Dragons play two to four of the Big 5 teams in any given year, scheduling can't be a major reason for this oversight. So what's the holdup?
Find Louisiana Tech a more reasonable conference home.
I find it silly that the Bulldogs' travel partner in the WAC is New Mexico State, a school over 900 miles away. The school has long sought a place in Conference USA, thinking that their other likely option, the Sun Belt, would be a step or two down for football. This should be something that will sort itself out once the Big Ten grabs one to three more schools, as has been rumored. A domino should fall that will move Louisiana Tech to a more geographically convenient league.
Get Seattle back into the West Coast Conference.
The Redhawks, then known as the Chieftains, were members of the WCC in the 1970s, before they dropped down to the NAIA. As part of their process to return to Division I, they naturally applied for readmission to their old league, an application that was rejected in 2007. That means school that produced Elgin Baylor and lost the 1958 National Championship game to Kentucky is without a conference for the moment.
The Redhawks are currently 7-11 in their first year playing a Division I schedule. They've grabbed home wins against Fresno State and Weber State and victories at Utah and Oregon State. If first-year head coach Cameron Dollar continues to develop the program, they should be an immediate contender when they finally become tournament-eligible for the 2012-13 campaign. Yet they won't go anywhere if they don't have a conference to play in, and, no, the Great West doesn't count.
My work here is done, but I may be missing some things. So, I leave you with a question. What changes do you want to see made in college basketball over the next decade?