Last Saturday, Butler beat No. 1 Indiana in one of the most entertaining basketball games you will ever see. It had all you could have possibly hoped for from a regular-season college basketball game: fierce rivalry, neutral (but local) court, two rabid fan bases, a tough underdog mid-major, a vaunted No. 1 team in the country and, to cap it all off, the winning basket being made by a walk-on. (There’s something strange about being so inspired by a person who is literally required to pay money in order to play, but no matter.) Last year’s signature regular-season college basketball game was Indiana’s upset win over eventual national champ Kentucky. This year’s, I suspect, was this game. It’s the one everyone will be talking about all season, the one that shook up the top 10 rankings and reminded everyone just how much fun college basketball can be.
So you can imagine the depression that set in when the television ratings came in for the game. As reported by Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel, the New Mexico Bowl, also known as the Wait, The Bowls Are Starting Already? Game, notched a higher television rating than the IU-Butler game. A substantial one, actually. Later that night, the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl -- I’ve been really impressed with how the Idaho Potato has dealt with its fame, all told -- beat the hoops game on television too.
Now, this isn’t exactly a potato-to-potato comparison; there are a lot of little factors that come into play. Bowl games are promoted ceaselessly before they air; people are conditioned by inertia to expect football on Saturday; a bowl game (at least theoretically) should be more “important” than a regular-season basketball game; no one knew the IU-Butler game would turn out as great as it did; the average American doesn’t know where Butler is; using TV ratings as the end-all-be-all arbiter of a sports popularity is a dramatic oversimplification. (And definitive evidence of how ESPN’s power is starting to rot our brains. Well, maybe not “starting.”) But nonetheless: One need merely look at the whiplash of conference realignment to understand that football rules the world of college athletics. I am not breaking news here.
I think it’s time for college basketball to stand up for itself. Having grown up near the University of Illinois -- where football is something one simply suffers through until Midnight Madness -- college basketball has always held a far larger space in my consciousness than college football, and TV ratings aside, I’m far from alone. College basketball has always spoken loudest to the logisticians, the completists, the romantic mathematicians, those obsessed with the idea that there are 347 teams in college basketball, and every single one of them has a chance to fit into that perfect bracket come March. There are a ton of us who like our game more than your college football -- who think our game can even approach perfection -- from Ashley Judd to David Letterman to Nate Silver to Bill Murray to President Obama. Yeah, we’re cooler than you are too.
It’s strange that I’d feel obliged to stand up and defend a sport that, for two weeks in March, absolutely owns the sporting world, but these days it’s tough not to see college basketball as an afterthought. When the seven Catholic schools last week proclaimed that they’d HAD IT, announcing they would be starting their own basketball league and leaving the Big East, it felt less like a business decision than a mission statement, the bullied finally rubbing the sand out of his eyes and taking charge of his own life. I’m not sure the move is all that smart, but I don’t care: I was just glad to see someone say enough was enough.
I’ve written this before: There is no sport more democratic than college basketball. College basketball is played everywhere. Wherever you live, with the exception of Alaska, there’s a Division I basketball school relatively nearby. My hometown of Mattoon, Ill., in the middle of nowhere Illinois? Eleven within a three-hour drive: Bradley, Butler, Eastern Illinois, Illinois, Illinois State, Indiana State, IUPUI, Purdue, SIU-Carbondale, SIU-Edwardsville and Saint Louis. Here in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, where I live now, there are two within a five-minute walk of my apartment, Long Island and St. Francis. If you were to take a two-hour drive in any direction from essentially any city in the United States, you would pass by several colleges that play Division I basketball. This is never more apparent than in the NCAA tournament, when the entire attention of the sporting world can be focused exclusively on Natchitoches, La., or Cedar City, Utah. There is no other big-time sport that can offer you that.
While Butler was playing Indiana on Saturday, I was at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, watching St. Francis play St. John’s. It’s the sixth time I’ve seen St. Francis play in the last 12 months; their “arena” is the Pope Physical Education Center in Brooklyn Heights, a gym that’s right next to the cafeteria, in the same building where they hold all their classes. Their best player is sophomore Jalen Cannon; I’m no scout, but his game looks good to me, better than it did last year. I watched him Saturday look up in the (empty) rafters of Barclays Center, in awe, a small-college kid, no pro, just a guy, take a few more jumpers and then sit down on the bench next to a priest. A woman in the crowd would cheer “Jalen!” every time he scored. And if that team gets hot for one week in early March, they’ll be playing in front of the entire world on one of sports’ grandest stages in the NCAA Tournament. He might even be playing in front of the British Prime Minister and the President.
College basketball is my favorite collegiate sport, and if it weren’t for baseball, it’d be my favorite sport of all. (The quality of play, and the fundamentals, aren’t as high as the NBA, not even close. But it’s just as charming, if not more so.) It’s been pushed around long enough. College basketball is fantastic. Its fans don’t have to be in a defensive crouch because of TV ratings and insane realignment: This sport is great, and always will be. Just ask Bill Murray.
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Do I feel this way if my Illini aren’t currently 12-0? No comment! Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.