|

NCAA’s hoop hype not such an easy sell in December

by Dave Wiggins

If Howard Cosell were still with us, he would probably say this about NCAA basketball (you supply the nasal tone and staccato pace): There now exists annually a veritable plethora of enthralling inter-conference hardwood encounters between traditionally proficient American institutions of higher academia.

Translation: These days, many big-name college basketball teams from different conferences play each other.

And, for once, Hairpiece Howie would actually know of which he speaks.

National powerhouses ARE, indeed, actually going head-to-head in non-league games during the regular season, well before they HAVE to meet one another in the NCAA tournament.

This, of course, is in direct contrast to collegiate football, where “name” teams avoid top- notch, out-of-conference opponents like they were face-eating bacteria.

The hoop slate this November and December included Kansas vs. Duke, Louisville against Kentucky, North Carolina-Michigan State, UConn taking on Florida, among many other intriguing pairings.

The top outifts meet in a variety of ways.

They commonly compete against each other in an ever-increasing number of eight-team tournaments held in exotic or interesting locales. Among them: The Maui Invitational in Hawaii, The Battle for Atlantis in the Bahamas and The Preseason NIT in basketball’s Mecca — New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Added to these are the multitude of Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday tourneys labeled “Classics” that are now in existence.

These are usually four ball club deals with city-related monikers like, say, The Mayonnaise City Classic (not a real tourney).

In the opening round of these set-ups, two teams with name recognition are usually pitted against a pair of sacrificial lambs to ensure the powers meeting in the “Finals.”

Afterwards, the schools get a nice sponsorship payday and the players go home with a remembrance — like, oh, complimentary mayo packets.

Sandwiched (no pun intended) in between these various tourneys are the single game “challenge” contests between conferences.

For example, every team from the Big Ten takes on a squad from the Atlantic Coast Conference yearly. The Big 12 and SEC have a similar thing going.

Additionally, some Top 25 types schedule just plain head-to-head clashes.

All this means small college hoop squads looking to fund their programs by serving as early-season cannon fodder for the biggies must now look elsewhere for revenue.

For example, tiny St. Leo’s of Florida no longer serves as opening night punching bag for Georgetown, as it did when shameless John Thompson was coaching the Hoyas.

So what’s with the tougher college basketball scheduling nowadays?

Did school coaches and administrators suddenly grow cojones — unlike their shrinking violet football brethren.

Hah, don’t make MAS laugh!

Nobody’s going out on too big of an early-season limb, trust me.

For starters, unlike football — where a single loss can eliminate you from participation in the national championship game — one defeat is no big deal in hoops.

In fact, you can absorb 10 or more of them and still go the big dance — the NCAA tournament.

As long as you had a high RPI (a ranking based on your strength of schedule) you can still end up hoofing.

If you play around 32 regular-season games, just win half of your toughies and two-thirds of your old-fashioned gimmes and — voila! — you have the 20 or so victories needed to qualify for March Madness.

But at least this is an improvement over the way things used to be.

Time was when big schools were notorious for filling their non-league slates with the St. Leo’s of the college world to achieve their almost-mandatory 20 wins.

However, it’s still hard for MAS to get too excited over these intriguing early-season matchups.

They are no more important than a tasty NBA regular-season meeting between Miami and Oklahoma City.

Such high-profile pro contests are “full of sound and fury, signifying (almost) nothing”, as Shakespeare would say, were Bill the Bard a hoop head.

A Heat-Thunder game is good theater but, in reality, just one of 82 mini-dramas.

Same for these big NCAA inter-conference showdowns.

In the grand scheme of things, a loss is but a blip on the pre-March Madness radar screen. Just don’t blip up too much and you’ll still be alright.

The real reason for all these tough tilts?

It’s the economy, you silly savage.

There are millions of dollars in TV and merchandising revenue to be made off these headline hoop clashes. So it’s a win-win situation, even if you lose some of them.

MAS still watches these regular-season tilts — but only in between meaningful end-of-season collegiate grid games and NFL contests with playoff implications.

And when he does take one in, MAS isn’t on the edge of his seat — it’s more like sofa loafin’.

Only the arrival of March Madness (and the NBA play-offs), will make him sit up and play close attention.

Until then, should Cosell again cross MAS’ strangely wandering mind, he will actually miss Howard’s pontificating personage — in a Frank Gifford kinda way.

Let me explain.

In his autobiography, Humble Howard had painted Faultless Frank — his former Monday Night Football partner — as shallow, prompting a prolonged icy period between the two.

But upon hearing Cosell was gravely ill, Giff thawed relations between the pair over the phone thusly.

Gifford: Howard, I want you to know, Kathy Lee and I are praying for you.

Cosell (launching into one of his trademark monologues): Aw, Giff, that’s truly gracious of you. Ya know I . . .

Gifford (cutting him off): Wait a minute Howard, I didn’t say WHICH WAY we were praying!

RIP, Howard. This collegiate hoop season’s for you.

Email Man About Sports at: davwigg@gmail.com