NCAA should shift basketball season

This was supposed to be college basketball’s Big Year, its once-in-a-generation moment when older stars (at least by one-and-done-era standards), historic teams and a weakened, post-lockout NBA conspired to drive interest in a sport that struggles to rise above niche status for 11 out of 12 months.

And yet, with roughly two-thirds of the games already played, college basketball’s regular season has settled into an all-too-familiar place. Despite everything the sport was supposed to have going for it, this year has turned out to be no different from the one before it or the one before that. It is, for lack of a better term, largely irrelevant.

There’s no joy in acknowledging that, by the way. Over the past 10 years, I’ve watched, covered and enjoyed college basketball more than any other sport. Give me Florida-Ole Miss, Indiana-Wisconsin and Gonzaga-Portland on a Thursday night, and I’m happy. But I’m a die-hard, stone-cold college hoops junkie.

I’m also the minority.

Sure, there are a few places where college basketball is king year-round. The states of Kentucky, Kansas and Indiana come to mind, as well as some major cities like Raleigh and Memphis where it’s long been part of the culture. But while the small group of loyalists has been watching since mid-November — dissecting what’s wrong with North Carolina, marveling over the potential of Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, familiarizing ourselves with upstarts like Murray State and Missouri — most of you will only start to pay attention right now, if at all.

College basketball has essentially become a six-week sport. In the big picture, it might as well not even exist before the Super Bowl. So why not change? Football owns the winter, but college basketball can own the spring.

March Madness is great, but you know what would be even better? May Madness — a 4½-month season, starting around New Year’s and ending just before the NBA playoffs take center stage.

“It would be a jolt — the traditionalists would go crazy — but there’s some merit to that idea,” said Pete Gillen, the former Virginia and Xavier coach, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports Network. “I’m partial, but I think the tournament is the greatest 3½ weeks of the sporting year. I think the tournament is powerful enough that it could be pushed back.”

The NCAA Tournament is so big, so popular and so profitable that moving it will, admittedly, never happen. But while college basketball is content to ride its three weeks in the spotlight, its regular season is becoming increasingly easy to ignore.

And it’s not entirely college basketball’s fault. Sure, the sport has flaws, starting with too many teams in Division I, absurd roster turnover from year to year and too few interesting non-conference matchups. It could be a much better, much more consistent product than it is.

But even under the best of circumstances, there’s only so much oxygen in the atmosphere. From November through the first weekend in February, football takes up almost all of it.

How do we know? Just look at the television ratings. The most-hyped college basketball game of the season so far — North Carolina at Kentucky on Dec. 3 — drew a 2.1 on CBS. But in the same time slot, on the same day, the Conference USA championship game between Southern Miss and Houston — two football programs with little if any national appeal — drew a 3.1 on ABC.

This season, college basketball games on ESPN have averaged 1.36 million viewers, actually a small tick up from last year. The Poinsettia Bowl between TCU and Louisiana Tech drew more than twice that — and it was one of ESPN’s lowest-rated bowl games.

“The NFL, and college football to a certain degree, blocks out the moon,” Gillen said. “Football is the giant elephant in the room.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. College basketball can make itself matter more than it does.

This marks the first weekend of the year without any football games on television. So what did college basketball offer up Saturday, when much of the country was just getting reintroduced to the sport? A drab slate of games, highlighted by unranked West Virginia at No. 3 Syracuse and No. 18 Mississippi State at No. 14 Florida.

Bleh.

But imagine a season that started the first week of January, after most of the bowl games have been played and the NFL regular season is complete. Every night, you could have at least two made-for-TV matchups between ranked teams, possibly as a lead-in to the BCS games.

College basketball doesn’t have an elaborate, attention-drawing kickoff event in November; it just kind of starts. But piggybacking off the BCS would give it a start that sizzles, a huge stage to exploit the offseason storylines and promote the one-and-done stars who seem like strangers for most fans when the tournament cranks up.

It would also largely avoid competing with the NFL, which would be down to just the playoff teams by then. By the time conference play started in late February, the only competition would be the NBA and NHL. The best games, the most intense matchups would take place in April, when there’s a bit of a void in the sports calendar.

It just makes more sense for basketball to be a one-semester sport. The game has changed, and freshmen are now playing and contributing right away at nearly every program. Giving them more time to get acclimated physically and mentally would make for a better product all-around. It would also allow basketball players to mimic their counterparts in football, loading up on classwork in the offseason and taking a lighter load during the season.

And the tournament? Put it in March, put it in May, put it on the moon — it would be as popular as ever. This is the time of year when people start getting turned on to college basketball. The problem is, they’ve already missed too much good stuff.