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How college basketball came to own Thanksgiving week

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Feast Week isn’t just for football anymore.

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational- Championship Game- Wisconsin vs North Carolina Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

On Nov. 23, 2005, Gonzaga and Michigan State played one of the most memorable regular season college basketball games of the last two decades. Adam Morrison set a Maui Invitational record with 43 points as the Zags pulled out a 109-106 triple overtime thriller in the semifinals of the tournament.

The game took place on a Tuesday. I know that without looking it up because the tournament has been a Thanksgiving week staple for as long as I can remember. I also know it because I remember gathering at a local drinking establishment with all my other friends who were just home from college for the first evening of Thanksgiving break.

Few sports are more synonymous with a holiday than football is with Thanksgiving. In fact, the tradition of college and professional teams playing high-profile games on the fourth Thursday of November dates all the way back to the 1800s. While the Lions, Cowboys, and backyard family touch football games aren’t separating themselves from Thanksgiving any time soon, college basketball has entrenched itself in the days immediately preceding and following the holiday more and more over the years.

Basically, the “Morrison goes for 43” memories are growing.

Gonzaga v Texas Tech Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

From the Monday of Thanksgiving week through the weekend that follows the holiday, college basketball games can be found on national TV at virtually any hour of the day. Maui has always been the highest-profile of the “Feast Week” tournaments, but the recent rise of the Battle 4 Atlantis and the introduction of new, loaded tournaments like this year’s PK80 have turned holiday hoops into an early helping of March Madness.

This year, the three days before Thanksgiving will include a staggering 199 games. The schedule is even heftier in the three days after Thursday, with 208 total games taking place. While college basketball’s regular season is still more readily dismissed than the regular season of any other major American sport, these games matter.

For many teams from mid or low major conferences, these Thanksgiving week tournaments represent one of the only opportunities they have to secure signature victories for their NCAA tournament resumes. For locks to make the Big Dance, these games can wind up making the difference between rising or falling an entire seed come Selection Sunday.

Take the case of Wichita State, for instance. Sure the Shockers will face tougher league competition this season due to their move to the American Athletic Conference, but that’s still a league with just one other ranked team at the moment. Also throw into the equation that neither Oklahoma nor Oklahoma State look as formidable as Gregg Marshall was hoping when he was able to get them on the schedule.

With all this being the case, it’s not difficult to envision a scenario where the Shockers potentially claiming a Maui Invitational title that includes wins over Marquette and a top-15 Notre Dame team winds up being the difference between at least one entire seed line for them four months from now (they would also get bonus points for achieving the feat without the services of Markis McDuffie).

Again, ignore anyone who tries to tell you that “these games don’t matter.”

So how did the sport arrive at this place where one of the earliest weeks of the season suddenly holds so much excitement and significance?

The biggest reason is necessity. Simply put, there’s no other time on the college basketball calendar where most of these tournaments could happen.

December is finals month, which also makes it the sport’s lightest month in terms of scheduling. Travel is difficult for everyone, and so high-profile non-conference matchups become few and far between for four weeks. January and February are reserved for conference play as well as a few rivalry games and inter-conference events like the Big 12-SEC Challenge. Then March arrives and the world’s greatest postseason play begins.

The result of all this is for seven days in mid-to-late November, we’re all treated to round-the-clock college basketball action where at most times we have multiple nationally televised viewing options.

This has always been the time of the year for over-indulgence. College basketball has just stepped up in recent years to carry more of the load.