As the college basketball season kicks into high gear, look for the debut of a new regular hoops series from Mike Tanier, Will Leitch and Matt Brown later this week.
Before everyone settled in to watch Saturday’s NFL playoff games, one of the most tiresome questions of modern sports emerged from its annual hibernation on Twitter: To rush the court, or to not rush the court? It’s a debate filled with varied rules and condescending opinions, one that’s a corollary of a broader question that defines the regular season of college basketball: Does one game matter?
North Carolina State fans answered rather early, queuing up around the edges of the court for several minutes as the upset of No. 1 Duke slowly drew to a close at basketball’s typical tortoise-like pace. Media members prepared for the onslaught around them. The buzzer finally sounded … and, what was that out front? Yes, a man in a wheelchair leading the charge to center court at PNC Arena as Raleigh erupted in the sweet euphoria of taking down No. 1.
So what if the upset was barely even an upset, if Duke played without the injured Ryan Kelly, if N.C. State, not Duke, was favored by many as the ACC’s preseason pick. On Saturday, that context didn’t really matter. For N.C. State fans, it was a celebration years in the making, a historically strong program with two national championships to its name, yet one that also has finished in the final AP Top 25 once since the beginning of the ’90s, one that has played a distant third wheel behind Duke and North Carolina in the Triangle region of the state. That context mattered greatly.
The Wolfpack beat Duke 84-76, accomplishing multiple things in the process: 1) knocking the No. 1 Blue Devils from their unbeaten perch; 2) re-emphasizing that last year’s Sweet 16 run was not a fluke, that this season’s enormously high preseason expectations were warranted.
So, getting back to the original questions about court storming and the meaning of one two-hour game, one game out of more than 30, one game that will have zero impact on the conference championship race that counts (the conference tournament, which is the only one the NCAA ascribes meaning to), one game that will likely have zero impact on either team’s NCAA tournament status, as both the Wolfpack and Blue Devils are expected to cruise into March Madness … The macro view says Saturday afternoon’s game mattered little, aside for the possible slight impact on each team’s postseason seeding. The micro view allows for jubilation, allows for a wheelchair-led charge toward midcourt, for us to recognize a game as a game and let players and fans celebrate the moment, celebrate N.C. State reasserting its status as a national player against a hated big brother from just up Tobacco Road.
No sport receives greater ridicule for its supposedly meaningless regular season than college basketball, and it’s not because the regular season is any less meaningful on a day-to-day basis than baseball’s 162 games, or the NBA and NHL’s (in the rare event of a full season) 82 games. It’s just that, in the eyes of so many, college hoops barely exists from tipoff in November until either the first college football-free weekend of January (this past weekend), or even until after the Super Bowl, when conference play is in full force and March Madness is nearing through the undeniable sports slog that is the month of February. The regular season just doesn’t command attention compared to its big brothers in the first half of winter.
But on this first post-college football weekend of college basketball, two colossal things happened, with several other significant occurrences on the undercard. Not only did undefeated Duke lose to N.C. State on Saturday, but the nation’s only other undefeated team, No. 2 Michigan, lost to archrival Ohio State on Sunday, staging a furious second-half rally after an abysmal first half, but ultimately falling just short, thanks in part to All-American Trey Burke’s three-pointer that missed by a millimeter with the Wolverines trailing by two in the game’s final minute. That millimeter may have been the difference between winning and losing, between Michigan being ranked No. 1 or not, between jubilation and sorrow in the stands as thousands of the Buckeyes faithful chanted “Just like football” and enjoyed the elation that comes with beating That School Up North.
They did not rush the court in Columbus, didn’t need to. Ohio State has been better lately both in football and basketball. And, no, in the long run there is no “meaning,” because it won’t decide the Big Ten, won’t decide the NCAA tournament. Louisville will likely be No. 1 on Monday, even though it lost to Duke, which lost to N.C. State, which lost to Michigan, which lost to Ohio State, which lost to Duke, which comprises the endless cycle and hopelessness of ranking teams by victory chains. At some point, Duke or Michigan will probably end up back on top, and much of this weekend will be lost to memory.
But in the moment, the games themselves had moments nearly as entertaining as a historically great weekend of divisional playoff games in the NFL. Obviously, the Seahawks-Falcons and Ravens-Broncos games had greater significance because they have a direct impact on the NFL’s championship race. But we ultimately watch sports for entertainment and the personal connections to teams and players. Don’t tell N.C. State and Ohio State players that the results had little meaning, and don’t tell the students either. Why shouldn’t college kids celebrate a win over a No. 1 team that happens to be a local rival? It’s a game. Winning any game is fun, especially in college. For two hours, the game means a lot, and that’s OK.
Storm the court and enjoy it.