Of all the six major American team sports -- Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA, college football and basketball and the NHL -- none has a more disappointingly anticlimactic kickoff to its season than college basketball. Major League Baseball, in addition to its eventual first day of a full slate, often gives us a little taste a few days earlier, screwing up your fantasy draft schedule by launching in another country. (Japan, usually, though it's Australia next year.) The NFL has a massive prime-time Thursday night explosion before owning your weekends for four months; college football does the same. Heck, even the NBA and NHL know to tip off/drop the puck with two high-profile franchises strutting for the whole world to watch.
But college basketball? Well, it's a random chilly Friday a week after the World Series ended … sure, let's go ahead and just start now. (Friday isn't even a day college basketball is widely played.) The first game of the college basketball season is at noon ET on Friday, between those storied powerhouses Eastern Michigan and Albion. Noted college basketball analyst/statistician/super genius Ken Pomeroy does a daily ranking of college basketball matchup quality on his site called "Thrill Factor"; of the 102 games between Division I teams, none of them are between two top 25 teams, or even top 35 teams. The eighth-best game of the day, according to Pomeroy, is Florida Gulf Coast against Nebraska. It is not the most scintillating slate.
This, of course, is not going to stop me from obsessively checking every score and watching every game I can, all day, from that rip-roaring Eastern Michigan-Albion game at noon -- with the women tipping off today as well, with Bucknell-Pittsburgh at 11 a.m. and Illinois-Bradley at noon -- through Citadel-VMI at 3:30 all the way until Coppin State-California at 11:59. It might seem like a nothing day for the layman, but for the hardcore college basketball fan, it's a day-long feast. I have no idea who in the world the Incarnate Word Cardinals are -- Google tells me it's a liberal arts school in San Antonio that just joined the Southland Conference -- but I know that once I'm done with today, they'll play Northwood at 4 p.m. Saturday. It's not on TV, but I can follow along online.
The key to loving college basketball is embracing its comprehensiveness. MLB has 30 teams; the NFL 32; the NBA 30; college football 125. College basketball's top division has 351. (And they add more every year: Hello, Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, Incarnate Word, Massachusetts-Lowell, Nebraska-Omaha and Northern Kentucky!) Every day from now until March, all over this crazy country of ours, there are college basketball games happening everywhere. In New York City. In Los Angeles. In Natchitoches, La. In Itta Bena, Miss. In Charleston, Ill.
In college basketball, particularly in this new age of college football television revenue, everyone is an underdog. (Save for maybe Duke, which loses $2 million a year in college football but more than makes up for it college basketball.) Syracuse is one of the most storied programs in college hoops, with a Hall of Fame coach, a rabid fanbase, an iconic arena and decade of success. Yet the Orange were yanked around during realignment -- because of football -- like they were co-ed basket weaving. This has led to a protectiveness of the sport by its fans and its administrators in recent years; it's a tight-knit place now. A college basketball person always knows another one.
A common criticism of college basketball is that for all the greatness of the NCAA tournament -- and its first weekend of play remains the best four days in sports -- its prominence has reduced the importance of the rest of the season. The casual fan doesn't need to start paying attention to February, at least. The college basketball fan knows how absurd this is; the first two months of the season are as vital as any other two months. You know all those RPI -- oh, also, hardcore college basketball fans know how outdated the RPI is too -- numbers and strength of schedule figures, all that data we're poring over to determine the NCAA tourney field? That's all rooted in the first two months. My Illini were 8-10 in the Big Ten last year, behind Iowa at 9-9, but the Illini easily made the tournament while the Hawkeyes left out because Illinois was beating Gonzaga in early December while Iowa was barely sneaking by Northern Iowa. These games really do all count.
When you have 351 teams to follow, the storylines are endless. Andrew Wiggins and Marshall Henderson will be discussed forever -- with good reason -- but plotlines are everywhere. Will Northwestern finally make the NCAA tournament? Can Harvard make the Sweet 16? How will Larry Brown do in his second year at SMU? (Yeah, that Larry Brown.) Did you know Rick Pitino's son was a big-time coach now? Did you know North Dakota State is probably better than Texas? Everywhere you look -- in every possible direction -- there is something fascinating happening.
There is an obsessiveness to college basketball that is somewhat akin a baseball fan doing a deep-dive into Baseball-Reference.com. With 351 teams, it's a constant stream of data, limitless stimulation. If you give yourself over to it, you'll find yourself getting lost. Teams are everywhere. Players are everywhere. Coaches are everywhere. They're all just trying to scrape their way into to that tournament, when it's not just obsessives watching. By the time the tournament begins, the college basketball completist knows all these teams already. It's like having a bunch of old friends over for a four-day festival.
I know that Siena-Albany game 7 p.m. doesn't matter that much, that they're just two teams of 351, that I don't even think I'll ever visit either Siena or Albany. (Siena's in Loudonville, N.Y., by the way.) But I will be following that game anyway. College basketball is a sport that's going on everywhere, populating the entire country, in metropolises and small towns alike. Everybody gets to play. Everybody has a chance. I find it irresistible. I'm so happy it's back.
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