Unless you’re a die-hard fan of college basketball, it might surprise you to learn that the season actually starts in November. Even the most delusional fans of the game recognize that national attention for the sport starts to ramp up around New Year’s before hitting a fever pitch come March. The NCAA knows what a windfall it has in March Madness, but they would also love to see college basketball on the broader public radar for more of the year.
It’s not possible to recreate the March Madness atmosphere in the middle of November, but the governing body did try something new this year, releasing its first ever mid-season rankings of the top-16 teams in January, essentially telling the masses who the top-four seeds would be in each region if March Madness started that day.
The move worked, to some extent. The rankings received widespread coverage from ESPN and other major news outlets.
Is there more that can be done to boost interest in the game before March rolls around? Undoubtedly.
Here are a few humble suggestions and the odds they actually transpire.
NCAA Basketball Odds: Ways to Increase the Hype!
Replace mid-season inter-conference “challenges” with tournaments
Currently, fans are treated to mid-season inter-conference showdowns in the form of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Those provide interesting barometers for gauging conference strength, but since each team only plays one squad from the other conference, casual fans don’t have much interest. You can declare one of the conferences the winner at the end of the day, but no single team wins the challenge. Casual fans aren’t going to get excited about a Big Ten win.
Instead of setting aside one weekend for these challenges, we should set aside two and make them actual tournaments. Send the top-four teams from each conference (based on the previous season, so the schedule can be set in advance) and have them play the quarter and semifinals at one site on the first weekend, then have the finals the next weekend between the two surviving teams.
The non-top four teams in each conference can retain the one-game showdown format.
Just think, this year, instead of only getting to see one really quality SEC/Big 12 matchup (Kansas over Kentucky, 79-73), we could have been treated to a dessert course featuring Kansas versus Florida or South Carolina, two teams that squared off in the Elite Eight. (We’ll ignore the fact that South Carolina didn’t actually take part in the challenge this year.) Fans might have learned rather definitively that the SEC wasn’t the whipping boy it was made out to be all season. Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida proved that pretty definitively in the tournament by being three of the final eight teams remaining, while the much-lauded Big 12 put just one team into the Elite Eight.
We could have learned something similar about the Big Ten from a mid-season tournament with the ACC. The ACC won this year’s Big Ten/ACC challenge, and teams like Michigan clearly came a long way between the challenge (where they lost at home to Virginia Tech) and the tournament (where they knocked off no. 2 Louisville in the second round. But a tourney-style format would have given Wisconsin and Northwestern (who beat no. 22 Syracuse and Wake Forest, respectively) the chance to show the nation that it wasn’t as much of a “down year” for the Big Ten as most were making it out to be. If we’d known that prior to the tournament, maybe the selection committee would have given Michigan’s run to the conference championship a little more respect when it came to seeding.
From an interest standpoint, midseason inter-conference tournaments make a ton of sense. From an execution standpoint, it’s a lot harder; it would involve a bit more travel and some built-in uncertainty in the schedule. No team wants either of those things. Plus, basing the tournament field on the previous season isn’t perfect. There’s so much roster changeover at the college level. But basing it on in-season results would build in even more uncertainty … way too much.
Odds mid-season tournaments replace mid-season challenges in the next ten years: 4/1
Make small conferences compete for March Madness bids
No one likes watching the no. 1 vs no. 16 games in the first round of the tourney. Though parity is growing in college basketball, the 16-seed has still yet to win a single game. These matchups are almost always snooze-fests, even though the 16s sometimes mount an early fight. We could increase the quality of the overall March Madness field by having weaker conferences compete against each other for automatic tournament bids. This would have the added benefit of ridding the tourney of the “First Four” games which, again, no one likes watching.
Under my system, in order to retain an automatic bid into March Madness, a conference must have won at least one tournament game in the previous five seasons. Any conference that hasn’t done so will have to send one representative to a mid-season tournament. The team that wins the tournament earns an auto-bid for its conference. The rest of the conferences don’t get a spot in the tourney; sorry.
Yes, this would lessen the drama we see from some small-conference tournaments during Championship Week. But there will still be ample March drama to go around.
The system I’m proposing would transfer some of that March desperation to the middle of the season, hopefully drawing more widespread attention to smaller teams that don’t receive any notice until March rolls around. During Championship Week, we see a lot more public interest in small-conference games because tournament berths are on the line. As long as you can pinpoint the tournament import of a game, national interest seems to grow. Under my system, a midseason game between Cal Poly of the Big West and Texas Southern of the SWAC could flash on the national radar in December, instead of being dismissed as a bland tournament prelude when it takes place in the First Four.
I haven’t worked out all of the details yet. But you have to admit, it has potential! That said, change of this nature is never quick to come from an institution as bureaucratic as the NCAA. First there would be an exploratory committee; then there would be a summit of athletic directors; then there would be a feasibility report.
Odds small conferences are forced to compete for auto-bids in the next ten years: 3/1
Post-season all-star game
College football and the NFL stay in the national spotlight after the National Championship with events like the Senior Bowl. The annual showcase lets the best seniors in the nation display their skills for a mass of scouts one last time, simultaneously creating headlines at a time when college football has no right to be on the front page.
College basketball has its own Senior Bowl, but it doesn’t garner nearly the same sort of attention for a couple reasons. First, it takes place during March Madness, right before the Final Four, so it’s relegated to the bottom of the basketball news cycle. Second, it features only seniors who (due to the aforementioned scheduling) aren’t still playing in the tourney.
The basketball version of the Senior Bowl should take place after March Madness and should feature more than just seniors, since the best NBA draft prospects are always underclassmen these days. Any player should be eligible as long as he’s declared for the NBA Draft.
In order to entice sponsorship of the event, the sponsor could have final say on the rosters.
March Madness always provides a stage for players to increase their profile. Just this year, Michigan’s DJ Wilson worked his way into the draft conversation with a strong showing, while his front-court mate Mo Wagner boosted his already high stock. An all-star game like I’m proposing would let all the fringe guys who either didn’t make the NCAA Tournament (see Valpo’s Alec Peters, Indiana’s Thomas Bryant, Iowa’s Peter Jok) or saw their teams flame out early (see Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Notre Dame’s VJ Beachem, Wake Forest’s John Collins, pictured at top) showcase their skills one last time.
One of the biggest question marks about players coming out of college always centers on how well their games will translate to the pros, where every player is an elite athlete. Will Peter Jok be able to get his jumper off with an NBA-level defender on him? Will Melo Trimble be able to drive the lane late in the shot clock and get to the free-throw line? My all-star game would help answer these questions by putting all the elite talent on the floor together. Instead of seeing Trimble get to the hoop against, say, Nebraska’s uninspiring backcourt, we’d see how he fares against a pitbull like Kansas’ Frank Mason.
But again, no one other than me seems to be clamoring for change to the status quo. And the five-on-five at the combine sorta, kinda tries to do this already (albeit miserably). I’m pretty realistic about the changes that my tiny rumblings can effect.
Odds of a post-season, pre-draft all-star game in the next ten years: 6/1