College basketball doesn’t matter before March? It matters before February

The arrival of Monday marks the arrival of February. This brings us in touch with an annual in-season lamentation from college basketball diehards: The regular season doesn’t get nearly the attention it deserves.

It’s an argument that is hard to measure in terms of media focus, even more so when one realizes:

A) how many games are on television;

B) how much publicity Ben Simmons is receiving;

and C) that the Golden State Warriors have gobbled up more of the news cycle this winter than NBA teams normally do.

Yes, the NFL season and the Super Bowl always diminish the weekend spotlight on college hoops in January — that will always be a part of the landscape unless the NCAA makes the (hard-to-implement) decision to adjust its calendar. In the present day, we’re stuck with the culture we have in America. For all too many casual consumers of televised sports, college basketball just doesn’t matter until March. It is what it is.

All one can do — instead of railing against groupthink or engaging in a stemwinder against cultural attitudes — is to calmly point out how much the regular season has meant… before a single game has been played in the month of (no, not March, but) February.

It’s true: While many college basketball teams will certainly have a chance to play their way into the NCAA tournament over the next month, it’s just as true that many teams have already played their way to the margins of the debate. Some teams are genuinely done as at-large candidates, and a great many others — while technically still alive — have already run out of any meaningful margin for error.

Let’s take a look at just a few examples to pound home this point.


Memphis does not play in a particularly strong conference. The American — with SMU being ineligible for the Big Dance — can expect no more than three teams in the field, and none of them will be seeded higher than sixth. Memphis is therefore in a situation where any non-SMU win will not move the needle to a substantial degree. The Tigers have to accumulate wins, especially in light of their inability to pick up a single non-conference scalp of any value. Their best win outside the AAC came against Ohio State, a team which — hey, theme alert! — has also played itself to the outer reaches of the NCAA tournament conversation before the beginning of February.

Yet, the Tigers have not accumulated wins in bulk quantities to offset their lack of shiny results. Memphis is 4-4 in the AAC and 13-8 overall. With high-end wins (versus Oklahoma, at South Carolina, at SMU), the Tigers could be 16-5 (5-3 AAC) and the owners of some substantial accomplishments. Even if their 13-8 record had a win over OU and a loss against a lesser light (say, the Temple game they wound up winning), the Tigers would have a more realistic path to the tourney. As things stand, their at-large flame is a flicker at best. The odds of Memphis getting in are microscopic at this point… and that might be generous.

The same is true for the Ohio State team which lost to Memphis. The Buckeyes did beat Kentucky, but the Wildcats don’t carry as much value as they did last season. OSU’s losses to Texas-Arlington and Louisiana Tech will carry a considerable cost. A 6-4 record in the Big Ten Conference might suggest that the Buckeyes aren’t in big trouble, but one has to remember that the composition of a conference record matters more than the record itself (within certain limits, of course).

Yes, your conference record must at least be no worse than two games under .500. To that extent, your raw conference record (regardless of the composition of wins and losses) matters. That’s about it, however. Once that scenario is addressed and presumably removed from the equation, the discussion immediately shifts to the eternal questions of college basketball: “Whom did you play, and whom did you beat?”

An 8-10 record in a strong conference, with several wins coming against high-end opponents, won’t work against inclusion in the tournament. Just ask Oklahoma State and Texas after the 2015 season. They both made the field with those records in the Big 12. However, that’s just one part of the conference record equation as it relates to tournament selection. If a 7-11 conference record is not part of the picture, inclusion boils down to the caliber of individual results.

As opposed to a “strong 8-10,” consider the flip side: A 10-8 record in which the wins come almost exclusively against cream puffs will not promote tournament inclusion — not without a clean body of work in the non-conference portion of the season. Ohio State has not won a single Big Ten game against any of the six teams above the Buckeyes in the league standings. The Buckeyes have feasted on the sugary sweets instead of opponents with high nutritional value. The empty-calorie diet has the Buckeyes ticketed for the NIT unless they can produce quality results.

Thad Matta’s team is in a position where it has to win every remaining game against weaker foes, and at least split a pair of home games against Michigan State and Iowa, while probably winning one game of consequence (i.e., against a good opponent) in the Big Ten Tournament. There’s still a chance for OSU (more so than Memphis), but the margins are so small right now. November through January have highly, not moderately, compromised Ohio State’s prospects for March.

Other teams which are either done or close to done as at-large candidates, before dribbling a single basketball in February competition: North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Arizona State (which had a good non-conference season), Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Davidson, Northwestern, Nebraska, UNLV, New Mexico, and several others.

Does the magic of the NCAA tournament eclipse the college basketball regular season in terms of drama, theater and intensity? Sure.

Does this mean that what occurs from November through January (not even including the pivotal month of February) lacks value or significance? Hardly.

Don’t focus on the emotionalist outpourings of fans who are desperate to have you “LOVE MY SPORT, PLEASE!”

Just look at the realities faced by teams as they dig themselves into a hole that February might not be enough to solve.

Pre-March basketball is meaningless? Go one step further in the cases of Memphis, Ohio State, and others: Pre-February basketball is quite substantial in its own right.

We now return to our Super Bowl hype week programming for those unwilling to consider how important college basketball is at this time of year… and has already become for several teams staring straight at the NIT.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.