College basketball places huge emphasis on individual games — showdowns between top-ranked teams, annual rivalry clashes, single-elimination tournaments — but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture from time to time. The Media Timeout considers how fans and journalists watch, follow, and talk about the sport.
Rejoice, for it is March. If you’re a college hoops-first sports fan like me, then welcome to our favorite part of the calendar. With football in the rear-view there are no distractions as the nation turns its collective attention toward March Madness. But after the confetti is all swept away and the last bars of “One Shining Moment” fade out, we’re left to confront an uncomfortable question: Is college basketball still relevant?
Questions about college basketball’s viability in an increasingly football-dominated American sports landscape seem to induce more hand-wringing each season. The growing popularity of the NCAA Tournament should reassure college hoops fans that the sport won’t lose its signature month of attention anytime soon, but the prominence of March also has the unintended consequence of making the regular season increasingly trivial. With the threat of an 18-week or 18-game NFL season still looming, is it unreasonable to consider a future in which college basketball becomes an afterthought until the final weeks before Selection Sunday?
Suffering the “Super Bowl Creep”
In February 2011, the day after the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, The Olympian columnist John McGrath issued a challenge to his readers: “Pop quiz: Identify a significant college basketball game played before the Super Bowl. I don’t mean just this year. I mean, over the past 45 years.” The question isn’t entirely rhetorical – he goes on to recount the Virginia-Georgetown matchup that pitted Ralph Sampson against Patrick Ewing in 1982 – but his point is that college basketball games of great consequence are few and far between before mid-February. Outside of Kentucky, I suspect basketball fans would agree that the most memorable – and meaningful – games tend to come later, only after college football and the NFL loosens its stranglehold on the American sports scene. But college hoops used to benefit from many more opportunities to leave an impression. McGrath cites huge games that came within a week of mid-January Super Bowls in 1968 and 1974, back in the days before a February Super Bowl became the norm.