College basketball is perfect cure for winter sports gap

By John Latella

Around this time of year, my addiction to sports causes me to suffer a bit more than usual. This year, the pains started very early on, when there was not a single team in the NFL Conference Championship games that I, a Jets fan first and a New York football fan second, could root for. This Super Bowl is one of the least attractive in history. Not only does it lack any semblance of star power, but the Pats are archenemies of my beloved Jets, and the Panthers’ head coach, John Fox, ought to be back with Jim Fassel in the Meadowlands where he belongs. If it weren’t for the fact that it is simply the Super Bowl, I might be inclined to do homework rather than watch the game. Sad, indeed.

There really isn’t any other kind of compelling sports action going on this time of year. The NBA and NHL are in the middle of their long, long regular seasons. Golf’s best story is a 14-year-old girl who didn’t even make the cut in her last outing, and no one aside from a 70-year-old retiree would be caught dead watching a golf tournament on a Thursday or a Friday. Tennis has the Australian Open, but the mix of the time zone difference and the sight of Andy Roddick and Mandy Moore together anywhere makes it less and less appealing.

This leaves me with only one real sport to keep me going. While many people put college basketball on the back burner until March, they don’t seem to realize that they are being entirely unfair to one of the most exciting leagues in organized sports. I would like to make an appeal for the madness of March to begin here and now, before the brackets are announced and people start trying to figure out if Ball State University is, in fact, a real college.

College sports are always a tough sell, I find. Most people don’t care, either because the level of play isn’t the same as the pros, or because they didn’t go to the University of Michigan and couldn’t care less about the team. Well, fine. I agree that it is even more difficult to find college sports fans at a school where “Pack the House” night at Ratner involves a few sports staffers, friends of those sports staffers, and the Alpha Delt guys (who deserve a special commendation for briefly making me feel like I was not, in fact, at the U of C).

Out of this seemingly dark picture of apathy, however, can emerge something to give the college hoops nuts out there some hope. Try making the case this way: college basketball is all about finding the team you identify with, and riding them as far into the bracket as possible. I attended a Jesuit school for a while, and I happily admit that I hopped on the Gonzaga University bandwagon years ago. I won’t be getting off. I have added to that list Georgetown University, St. Joseph’s University, Xavier University, College of the Holy Cross, and Creighton University. All of these are Jesuit schools, and all are perennial contenders in their respective conferences and as teams in the Tournament.

If the style of play or institutional ethos is your thing, try finding a team that suits you. Air Force runs the Princeton offense, which is great fun to watch and is a system that prides itself on the intelligence of its players to make smart decisions with the basketball while running an intricate pattern of passing and cutting to the basket. For that matter, try Princeton itself, which has been known to defeat the likes of UCLA in tournament upsets of epic proportions. And if the institution itself matters, root for the places that actually care about academics. Stanford, Notre Dame, Holy Cross, Northwestern, the Ivy League conference champion, and Duke (the perennial pick to win the national championship) all have a chance to make some noise in the college basketball world this year, and what could be better than the sight of nerdy fans (and sometimes players) acting like idiots.

In some cases, of course, the fun of college basketball is in seeing the astounding upset or the huge comeback. In 1998, guard Bryce Drew of the Valparaiso University Crusaders, led a huge underdog to the round of 16 thanks to not one but two last-second miracle shots.

If you cannot find a way to root for that kind of underdog in a sporting event, you may not be the sports fan you claim to be. In 1997, 13th-seeded Princeton defeated UCLA, the defending national champion, in what was supposed to be the last game legendary Princeton coach Pete Carroll ever paced the sidelines for. Instead, the Tigers used one of the trick plays in their famous playbook, going “backdoor” to defeat the Bruins at the last second in one of the most memorable games in tournament history.

And such upsets happen frequently in the tumultuous regular season as well. Last week, the unranked and largely forgotten University of Richmond defeated the University of Kansas, a team considered a national championship contender. A win like that will send shockwaves into the college basketball world, especially on those two campuses. In college basketball, wins in the regular season mean a trip to the Madness; a loss means a season of sitting around, wondering what might have been if only the College of Charleston hadn’t come to town.

Yes, the NBA features better players. Yes, many great basketball players never play a game in college basketball (LeBron James or Yao Ming). Yes, some great players leave after one year and a national championship (Syracuse’s Carmello Anthony). These are perfectly acceptable arguments against caring about college basketball. But there are teams full of seniors who are getting degrees and moving on with their lives aside from college sports. These players exist for the few moments of glory that the world will give them when the 15th seed matches up against the 2nd-seeded juggernaut. The regular season makes that possible, and is worthy of our attention, and perhaps of a little of our sports madness.