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College Basketball is a Three Week Sport...For Better or Worse

March Madness captivates the nation every year for a few weeks, but what about the rest of the college basketball season?

Every year, in March over ten million people become transfixed by college basketball. People take sick days off work, fill out brackets, and consume hours upon hours of basketball. They root for players and teams that they have never followed. It is truly one of the most magical times on the sports calendar. A time when diehard basketball fans and casual observers have a common interest in an event, March Madness more than lives up to its name every year.

While the tournament that helps decide its champion could be considered one of the best in all sports, the same cannot be said for the rest of the college basketball season. Interest in the college basketball regular season for many people has seemed to wane in recent years, due to a multitude of factors centering around the changes that college athletics has seen in the way players and teams are marketed to the masses. This limited interest has rendered the sport of college basketball (specifically the men’s game) to a three-week sport that is becoming increasingly reliant on the pop culture appeal of its tournament over all else.

The Magic of the Madness

There are four elements that make the men’s NCAA basketball tournament a great consumer event:

-            Single elimination drama

-            Underdog stories

-            Gamification

-            Calendar timing

The tournament has a massive number of teams in it, with 68 teams presented with an opportunity to win a national championship. Unlike professional leagues, this tournament is single elimination. This means that a team doesn’t need to be better than their opponent to win, but rather just to be better for one game. The nature of basketball also allows players to thrive in this format, creating cult heroes who go on a run of excellence in the tournament. Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, Steph Curry at Davidson, and Kemba Walker at Connecticut all come to mind in this regard. This format also ensures that there will be upsets, where a small mid-major school that no one has ever heard of beats a blueblood program like Duke or Kansas.

We as a society love rooting for a feelgood underdog story, to see David conquer Goliath is something that always resonates with people. And because of limited scouting and preparation for games in the tournament, larger schools with larger budgets can see a promising season end due to a player on an opposing team having a great game. This unpredictability does not exist in other sports, and it is part of what makes the tournament so intriguing to many people every year.

Part of that intrigue is tied into the almighty bracket. Every year, office pools and large-scale contests are created for people to guess the outcomes of the games being played for a collective pot. Brackets have become such an integral part of pop culture and of the NCAA tournament itself that they are incorporated as part of the official March Madness logo. Every year there are approximately 70 million brackets filled out by people looking to win their pool or to achieve the elusive perfect bracket. The bracket allows people to remain invested in the tournament as it stretches through the end of March and into April. The chance to win a pool and maintain bragging rights over friends and family is simply intoxicating for people, even if they don’t follow the sport.

It is widely acknowledged that college basketball owns the month of March in the sports calendar. The few weeks that the tournament takes place runs unopposed in a competition for potential viewers. The NFL off-season is well underway with the season being over and the bulk of free agent signings being completed. The NBA and NHL are winding down their regular season at this point, with many fans just waiting for the playoffs to start. Baseball starts its season in the end of March, but this is usually as the tournament is ending so there is no true competition to the event in the United States.

All of these factors combined creates must-see television and a darling for the sports media landscape. There is the right mix of intrigue, excitement, and investment that keeps us coming back every year for more madness. But when it comes to the regular season the same level of buy-in is not there, since the stakes are not as urgent. But beyond the stakes, there are elements of the college game that are holding back the regular season from being the great sprint that it was years ago.

The Short-Lived Player Business

College sports often cite rivalries as something that differentiates them from the professionals. Regional rivalries filled with hatred are sold as the lifeblood of college sports. In football, rivalries like Ohio State vs Michigan, Auburn vs Alabama, and Texas vs Oklahoma are alive and well. In college basketball, however, it seems that few of these rivalries have endured. Part of this has been the ever-changing conference structure that basketball has had to deal with because of the interests of college football for conferences like the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC (which is what caused us to lose the storied Syracuse vs Connecticut rivalry for instance). But another element could be just how little time players spend in college these days.

Many people view the 80s and 90s as college basketball’s golden era. There were iconic teams like Houston’s Phi Slama Jama, Michigan’s Fab Five, and Georgetown’s “Hoya Paranoia” era with Patrick Ewing and John Thompson. The players on these teams (Hakeem Olajuwon, Chris Webber, and Patrick Ewing to name a few) became household names before they hit the NBA. This is because they spent multiple years in college and established themselves as brand names for their schools and the sport. When Michigan played Duke in the early 90s, we were excited to see Webber play against Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley go against Jalen Rose. The players were the main attraction, players that we knew, and it made the games that much more interesting.

But as the 1990s went on, we saw the rise of players entering the NBA right out of high school, foregoing any sort of development period in college. This era produced players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tracy McGrady that made the jump to being professionals at 18 years old. With a massive amount of players foregoing college, the NBA eventually instituted its “one and done” rule, which required a player to be one year removed from high school to be eligible to play in the league. This brought players back to college but only for one season. The NBA Draft today is filled with players that competed for one season in college and then moved on to being professionals. Kentucky coach John Calipari has made a career out of recruiting these players, with the likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Anthony Davis playing in Lexington for one season before being drafted into the league.

The issue with one and done from the college basketball product perspective, is that we lose the attachment to a player at a school. While the name brand schools and coaches are still there, we have lost an iconic player coming back for multiple tournament runs to create intrigue. Instead, it is the same story every year just with a different player, hone your skills enough to get noticed by scouts and then get as far as you can in the tournament before starting to prepare for the draft. This lack of year over year continuity means that every season we are getting used to a new cast of characters at a school, which leads to limited buy-in during the regular season.

It can be viewed as a bit of an unintended consequence. A year in college helps give players a national platform to build off for draft stock (as was the case for Zion Williamson in 2019) and to develop a bit before being thrust into a league with more physically mature competition. But in the process, it has made college basketball less identifiable to non-diehard fans, and that has only been magnified thanks to the recent changes in the way players have become de facto free agents at the end of each season.

The Ups and Downs of Player Mobility

In 2021, the US Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in Alston v. National Collegiate Athletic Association that paved the way for players to be compensated for their name, image, and likeness (NIL). This ruling created a de facto payroll system for many colleges and athletes. It has enabled players to earn a living while in school, which It can be argued is well deserved since they generate universities upwards of $19 billion every year. Coupled with the ability to pay players, college athletes now can transfer to different schools with fewer guardrails than before. It is called the transfer portal and it is basically free agency in college sports when coupled with NIL deals. The only difference between it and what we see in pro sports is that in college there is no salary cap.

These two changes combined have led to more and more players leaving school after one season to get better opportunities elsewhere. This movement has continued to drive the churn of players from schools, making them less identifiable than they previously were. This constant change makes it harder for an average fan to want to follow their team with any degree of regularity. This is not to say that the previous system that did not compensate the athletes was better, but the excessive player movement is an unintended side effect of empowering players to the point of overcorrection.

With players able to transfer at will, college basketball programs have massive turnover and may field entirely new rosters from year to year. This new model requires coaches to always be in a mentality of recruiting new talent instead of trying to develop the talent that they have at their disposal. What ends up happening often, is that many coaches spend half of the year trying to get a handle on what their new team’s identity will be and then hoping that they cobbled together enough wins to qualify for the NCAA tournament by the end of it. This haphazard approach has led to a worse product in the regular season, devoid of any elite teams that stand out.

The Irrelevant Regular Season

To get an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, a team must win their conference tournament. This means that a team can be in the bottom half of the conference and still qualify for postseason play by running the table in their conference tournament. This plays into the Cinderella aspect of March Madness very well. But in the case of a smaller conference, it is likely that the team that wins the conference will be the only one selected for the tournament. This leaves the team with the best regular season record in that conference out in the cold. The message that this sends to the college basketball world is that the regular season doesn’t mean anything since it is the conference tournament that is truly important.

College basketball not rewarding regular season success is indicative of just how beholden the sport has become to the mystical magic of March. Anything that can build intrigue for a single elimination tournament will be implemented, and that is what has come to define the sport. The question remains if any of this can be fixed. Giving a regular season champion an automatic bid over the conference tournament could be a solution to give the regular season more merit, and if players stuck around for a couple of years that could help re-establish rivalries again.

But ultimately, college basketball has opened Pandora’s box when it comes to March Madness. The event is so thrilling that every action that the sport takes is in the service of making that singular product as good as it can be. If that comes at the cost of an interesting regular season, then that is simply the cost of doing business. In the women’s game we have seen the opposite of this, where tenured players like Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers have established themselves as household names which is leading to renewed interest in the women’s tournament.  The reality today is that men’s college basketball is a three-week sport. And regardless of how magnificent those three weeks are, I find myself longing for a time when the games in December and January were just as exciting.

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