If you think college hoops is boring this year, time for a change of heart
On a night of fierce competitiveness and drama from around the nation, Wednesday's College Hoops Moment came suddenly out of nowhere from the relative basketball solitude of the San Joaquin Valley. When San Diego State junior Jamaal Franklin went And-1 Mixtape on Fresno State in a real, live basketball game, throwing down a dunk off an absurd self-lob off the glass from the three-point line, he set Twitter ablaze along with the hearts of those of us who live for the game.
Franklin's play could be symbolic for this season, too: Something great may happen when it's least expected. Prejudged in the summer and fall as a campaign that could disappoint because of a lack of elite teams and NBA-level talent, we're instead halfway through what could be one of the most open and interesting seasons in recent memory. The national title race has a big batch of possible contenders. The player of the year race is cluttered with quality choices. And we've been blessed with many memorable moments like Franklin's that keep us watching and tweeting in anticipation of the next one.
We've had Rotnei Clarke's Maui Wowie. Sabatino Chen's phantom three. Nick Johnson's Christmas package. Walk-on Alex Barlow beating No. 1. Mark Lyons' validation with every big bucket and free throw. Much Russdiculousness. Mike Muscala's Patriot Games countering the CJ3 Show (now on hold; thanks, broken foot). Jeff Withey's all-inclusive block party. Trey Burke's quicksilver majesty. Michael Carter-Williams' multitude of assists (and one alleged steal). Kelly Olynyk's validation of redshirting. Tyler Haws' similar show for Mormon missions. Flip Pressey and Quinn Cook trying to out-Gottlieb each other. Fresh faces like Anthony Bennett, Jahii Carson and Marcus Smart. College hoops may not always be the prettiest (looking at you, Georgetown-Tennessee), but if you think it's boring, you're not looking hard enough.
The sport has been damaged over time by the lengthening of the "familiarity curve." Markedly increased coverage of both the AAU scene and the NBA draft makes it feel like we know college players better and longer than we really do and it has changed the way we judge them as successes or failures. For many, the college level has become a required passthrough between the stages of adolescent hype and professional legitimacy, with the byproduct being a disjointed hodgepodge of top teams fueled by short-timers, and mid-majors plied most often by never-will-bes. But you know what? That's OK.
Look at the landscape that's developing this season. Indiana is fully back. Louisville is elite. Kentucky remains buzzworthy even if the Cats are between runs at history. UCLA has a revived pulse. Kansas is chugging along toward another 1-seed. Duke ripped off one of the modern era's great nonleague runs. There's anticipation in Vegas unlike anything we've seen since the program's heyday two decades ago. Same with Michigan. Florida looks good again. Syracuse is primed for another deep run. North Carolina may end up in the NIT. Big-name relevance and storylines are everywhere for the casual fan.
The nouveau riche also are loaded. Butler looks like a legitimate dark horse to add to its recent Final Four fun. New leaguemate VCU is in that same category of dangerous outsider. Gonzaga, the table-setter for all mid-major program development, is ranked in the top 10. Could this finally be
Every night, there's quality basketball, somewhere. Every night, there is an upset going down, somewhere. Most important, every night, there's a game on, somewhere. Yes, for the next two-plus months, we will get games daily. League games. Hotly contested games. Games with NCAA tournament implications or rivalry relevance. Games on TV, or your laptop, or your iPhone, or, heaven forbid, the radio. It's the two months of the year where discussion of the games themselves supersedes discussion of the players and how they translate to the next level, or the coaches and their legacies.
So, immerse yourself. The NFL has four dates left on its calendar. Nothing else is relevant until April, and our sport has something for everyone, especially in this potentially craziest of seasons. Get familiar now so you can be ahead of the Marchification of the game. While everything ultimately does lead to the Road to the Final Four, there are some great pit stops along the way. If you're not along for the ride, you might miss something. You never know when or where the next moment will come from, but you're going to want to be there when it does. Trust me. I saw Jamaal Franklin's dunk live.