Twenty-One Weeks of Hoops: RTC Welcomes In A New College Basketball SeasonPosted by Chris Johnson on November 9th, 2012
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The interminable offseason breeds countless hours of boredom and frustration. With seven months separating the net-cutting ceremony that signals the end of every college hoops campaign and the opening tip that begins it, perusing the internet and conjuring up ideas to write about on a daily basis becomes an exercise in creative determination. This is not the NBA, where free agency bridges the gap between the Finals and training camp. The college basketball season has a definitive start and end. Though that line is beginning to blur with amplified recruiting coverage and limited summer practices, when the field of 68 is finally whittled down to one, and the soft tunes of One Shining Moment set off an emotional carousel unlike any other in American sports – from utter despair and devastation for the losing fan base to extreme delight and exultation for the national champion – the hardwood action that has so thoroughly captivated fans across the nation over the previous five months with nonstop intrigue and resume-building/crashing drama grinds to a screeching halt. It’s why the National Championship game always feels like a foreboding culmination, like the end of an enchanting joyride that closes with equal parts satisfaction and disappointment. The warped sense of reality defined by conference races, argumentative bubble talk and AP Poll hand-wringing is swept away without but a single warning to prepare for the lull. Amidst all the joy of a championship celebration and the highly-anticipated lead up to the Final Four, there stands the harsh reality of a painfully long college hoops drought. We college hoops scribes have grown to accept this dichotomy as one negative in an overwhelmingly enjoyable state of affairs. Because no matter how much we dread the dry offseason, the gloomy days spent panging for loaded campus gyms, and buzzer beaters, and visible fan passion, the torture is justified by the sweet end.
The journey to that end begins tonight, and not a moment too soon. We here at RTC have a date with college hoops, one that’s seven months overdue. She cannot evade us, nor the rest of the hoops viewing public, any longer, because tonight the lovefest commences. If you are a first-time viewer of the sport, consider this a warning: What you are about to see may distort your expectations. Over the next three days, teams will eschew traditional playing grounds to meet on aircraft carriers and foreign military bases. It is a patriotic inauguration of the sport we love, but it is not – however delighted you may be by the gorgeous vistas and military backdrops adorning the proceedings – the norm. It won’t be long before geeked-up student sections and campus hysteria inhabits your nightly viewing experience. And for that, we are thankful. Ecstatic. Tantalized. However you wish to describe it or appreciate it, the message is the same: the wait is over.
In an effort to set the table for this long-awaited date, let us go back to the game that brought a close to last season. The lasting memory, without exception, is Kentucky –the freshmen-powered juggernaut John Calipari crafted and orchestrated to operate at full throttle on the grandest stage, to debunk the Tournament axioms of old venerating the merits of experience and veteran leadership, to peak in time for the event whose ultimate prize had eluded him and stained his reputation. In case you haven’t heard, Calipari, following years spent weathering criticisms of NCAA impropriety and tactical shortcomings, captured the title he long sought. He’s back to chase his second ring this season, only with a completely new cast of characters. While the evidence of last season – in which Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague burst onto the scene with precocious talent and an unprecedented selflessness that crystallized their potential and promise into a National Championship outfit – would have you think otherwise, Big Blue’s new crew stands to regress from the sublime perch it inhabited last season. By Calipari’s insane standards or otherwise, that’s totally normal; the ebbs and flows of talent and roster complexion inevitably affect every roster, and UK is no exception. Besides, Kentucky is not the only heavyweight who figures to take a step back this season. The upper crust of Final Four hopefuls that emerges each preseason is on the whole weaker than last year’s group. From North Carolina (Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes, Kendall Marshall) to Duke (Miles Plumlee, Austin Rivers) to Kansas (Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor) to Syracuse (Dion Waiters, Fab Melo, Kris Joseph), last season’s juggernauts shed NBA talent left and right. There’s a downside to losing top-end pros: the quality of games may suffer, the off-the charts athleticism may dwindle, and so on. That makes this coming season no less exciting.
If there’s anything we can agree on as we celebrate the birth of another hoops calendar, it’s that the top of the landscape is as wide open as it has been in years, and that – more than any lottery pick’s on-ball quickness or size-to-skills versatility or any other pre-draft criterion invoked to grade college players – ensures the coming events will trump the incredibly high bar set in 2011-12. Maybe we won’t witness another unibrow-clad basketball destroyer of worlds seize the national spotlight like Anthony Davis did last season, and maybe a neglected Cinderella won’t emerge from the MEAC grind to pull a stunning #15-#2 upset (we salute you, Norfolk State), and maybe the unquestioned national title front-runner won’t see its non-conference season thrown into sharp disarray by a rabid court-rushing of red-and-white-striped diehards. What we do know is that the uncertainty at the peak, the fickle arrangement of contenders at the sport’s upper echelon, ensures this year’s champion should offer an unanticipated conclusion to the journey ahead. That is what makes the college basketball postseason the greatest sendoff party in all of American sports. The high stakes and do-or-die stipulations affix an element of finality to each contest, a survival of the fittest mentality that shines through in any viewing medium, from on-court press-pass wielding reporters to couch-tethered fans at home. And because this season’s lack of clear-cut favorites means we have no idea who will rise above the rest – sure, Indiana and Louisville look good, but they are not last year’s Kentucky; that I can assure you – the bracket can shake out in any number of ways. Your office pool sheet may suffer, but the drama that ensues will far outweigh whatever sum you pony up and however many hours you spend regretting erased picks and ignoring visceral inclinations.
Before we start thinking about Tournament seeds and brackets, another regular season will unfold. The non-conference season, long overshadowed by intercollegiate football and the NFL, has never garnered any large share of the national sports consciousness during this time of year. A few aircraft carrier games won’t change that. Most casual sports fans associate college hoops with St. Patrick’s Day as a post-NFL hold-me-over before the heart of baseball season. They pay lip service to college hoops throughout the fall and early winter, mentioning it only in passing, and watching weeknight games with a general apathy, as if the regular season means little in advance of the Tournament. That indifference will likely continue this season. I cannot alter those tendencies, nor can I generate nationwide interest in a regular season that’s struggled to keep up with its gridiron relative. My plea is of a different sort. For those who enjoy the entirety of the campus hoops slate, tonight marks the start of something special. RTC will guide you along the way with insightful commentary and nonstop updates on leagues far and wide, teams big and small. We relish this day as the introduction to a months-long gauntlet for conference and national bragging rights. From start to finish, the battling of wits will occupy our thoughts and consume our late nights with post-worthy thoughts and well-informed opinion and analysis. The joy is in the creation, and in your satisfaction. So to enhance your 2012-13 college hoops experience, stay posted, and for the next five months, make sure you take in as much game action as possible, because it won’t be long before we’re dreading the start of another monotonous offseason. We won’t worry about that just yet; now is not the time for looking ahead. The excitement is in the here and now. Tonight is the night. If you’ve taken anything from this long-winded introduction, and my personal thoughts on the occasion we find ourselves party to on this night, remember this: I am excited, and you should be too.