If you’re already in full mourning for the just-departed college football season, here’s a brief note:
College basketball is richly and profoundly fascinating in 2016… and you don’t have to wait until March to realize this.
Wednesday night, a series of events across the country, in early games and late games, created a tapestry of realities — many of them tenuous, some of them quite alarming — which all feed into a season which has been anything but monochromatic.
Last season was the Kentucky Watch, as casual fans monitored the Wildcats on their journey to the 40-0 mountaintop. This season lacks that one central presence (which is admittedly good for drawing interest to the sport), but the trade-off is not a bad one: So many more stories spread across the country — in various conferences and contexts — are worth your attention. More faces, more schools, more dramas — it’s the college basketball season in which everyone has a place at the table.
Wednesday night reaffirmed this dynamic.
Let’s take a quick stroll through Wednesday to very gently usher you, Mr. College Football Mourner, into the joys and delights of college hoops and a season which will entertain you if you watch it.
South Carolina had been one of only two unbeaten teams in college basketball. The Gamecocks’ perfect run came to an end on Wednesday, as Alabama shot the cover off the ball and buried Frank Martin’s team with a massive second-half surge. If you follow college basketball closely, you know that South Carolina is hardly an NCAA tournament lock the way Kansas and North Carolina are soon to become. Casual fans should take interest in the Gamecocks not only to see how they’ll respond to this Alabama ambush, but because a downtrodden basketball program would score a coup if it can indeed play well enough to go dancing in March. Maybe you’re pulling for the Gamecocks, maybe not; regardless of perspective, their journey just became even more compelling after dropping game number one.
The immediate result of South Carolina’s loss is that the only unbeaten team left in major college basketball is a team which is ineligible for the NCAA tournament. SMU beat East Carolina on Wednesday to remain perfect. Since SMU’s season would end in early March, before The American’s conference tournament, the possibility exists that the Mustangs will be playing for history on an all-time scale in a month and a half. Naturally, there’s a long way to go, but if SMU gets through the first week of February without blemish, Pony Up — a lot of electricity will attend Nic Moore and Markus Kennedy. You’ll want to be along for the ride.
We mentioned South Carolina above; Palmetto State improvements have not been limited to the Gamecocks this season. Brad Brownell (shown in the cover photo for this story, above) just might be doing the single best coaching job of anyone in the United States. His Clemson team dumped Duke on Wednesday, having dispatched Louisville a few days earlier. The Tigers stumbled repeatedly in non-conference play, but they are quickly building a resume which will be worth considering a few months from now. Is this a temporary rise built on the ability to protect home court, or can the Tigers carry this level of form to other gymnasiums in the ACC?
Staying in the ACC, there’s also a train-wreck situation you can’t look away from, providing entertainment value for the worst reasons instead of the best ones.
North Carolina State fell to 0-4 in the ACC after a home-court loss to Florida State. The Wolfpack’s league record is bad enough by itself, but what is especially alarming for coach Mark Gottfried is that his team’s conference losses have come against teams outside the top tier of the ACC. Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, and Florida State will not finish in the top three of the ACC this season, probably not in the top five unless one of them makes a highly unlikely run. N.C. State still has to play the big boys, beginning with this Saturday’s visit to North Carolina.
If you think pre-March college basketball doesn’t matter, don’t tell that to N.C. State right now. Its NCAA tournament hopes are squarely on the line in these coming weeks. A season could spiral out of control, or the Wolfpack could rescue themselves.
Last but certainly not least, USC basketball — if it hasn’t arrived — is certainly coming close.
After winning a four-overtime game on Saturday — and not just against any Pac-12 opponent, but league standard-bearer Arizona — a letdown on Wednesday against UCLA would have been completely understandable. Sure, this was a rivalry game without any real travel involved, but the Trojans still could have been mentally flat after playing the equivalent of three halves of basketball against Arizona’s skill.
Instead, USC maxed out, whipping the Bruins by an 89-75 margin. Head coach Andy Enfield labored through two miserable seasons with inherited players. Now that his recruiting is beginning to have an impact — and players feel a lot more comfortable with what he’s doing — USC is ripening into the product Enfield envisioned when he came from Florida Gulf Coast University to the West Coast of the United States.
A Los Angeles basketball scene with two interesting teams? That exists this season… and we’re not talking about Lakers-Clippers.
College basketball in 2016 is replete with fascinating stories. Beyond the teams surveyed above, Saint Bonaventure is still unbeaten in the Atlantic 10 after winning on Wednesday night. Pittsburgh, West Virginia, and Xavier all have only one loss. Texas A&M leads the SEC.
This is the college basketball season you have (necessarily, rightly) missed if you’ve focused on college football, which we support.
Don’t mourn the loss of college football, however. Two and a half months of extremely interesting hoops lie in front of you. Reorient yourself now and embrace college basketball.
You’ll be glad you did.