It's a little strange to be talking about Midnight Madness celebrations during the first full week of October, but with the NCAA's new rule allowing teams to begin formally practicing in late September, that's the world we now find ourselves in. For reasons not limited to an overlap with football, local marketing, continuity and several others, many schools have decided to continue holding their rowdy open practices during the traditional mid-October window approaching the start of the regular season (ESPNU, for example, will show portions of nine Madness events during a four-hour telecast on the night of Oct. 18). So while we'll need to wait to see the next-generation basketball extravaganzas at the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Syracuse, Memphis, Connecticut, Michigan State, North Carolina and a host of others scheduled in the next few weeks, a couple prominent basketball schools took advantage of the new calendar and got an early start Friday night.
Kansas' "Late Night in the Phog" and Indiana's "Hoosier Hysteria" celebrated the return of balls bouncing on the hardwood at a pair of schools where such a thing never really leaves fans' minds. And while the cheesy dances, the campy skits and the promotional giveaways at these events have a carnival barker feel, fans tolerate all the nonsense just to catch a glimpse of their new team in action. Did the talented but slight power forward put on that additional 20 pounds during the summer? Has the point guard's sometimes shaky decision-making improved? Were all those rumors about the transfer wing dominating practice legitimate? And what about those freshmen -- are they as good as advertised? These and many other questions are nearly impossible to answer only a few days into the start of a long college hoops season, but fans know talent when they see it, and they saw it in spades in Lawrence and Bloomington over the weekend.
At Kansas, where head coach Bill Self celebrated the unveiling of his ninth straight Big 12 championship banner, Canadian wunderkind Andrew Wiggins was the talk of the building. The consensus No. 1 recruit and presumptive overall top pick in next year's NBA draft showcased a variety of explosive moves well above the rim, going for 12 highlight-reel worthy points in the defenseless 20-minute scrimmage ("brother-in-law ball," as Self called it). Despite losing all five starters from last season's Midwest Region top seed, Self mixed messages to the fans by asking them to be patient with his young team (the Jayhawks are likely to start three freshmen), while finding a moment to point at KU's national title banners and say, "It's time to hang one more." Expectations are enormous every year for Kansas, where lottery picks replace lottery picks, and where the word rebuilding is left to, ahem, other Big 12 powers. But Self knows what he has on his roster; his request for fans' patience comes embedded with the knowledge that the Jayhawks could be downright nasty next February and March.
Over in Bloomington at Hoosier Hysteria, Indiana also celebrated the hanging of a conference championship banner honoring its first outright Big Ten title in two decades (as Tom Crean said, "we don't buy those things at Walmarts"). And although his preseason No. 1 team last season fell a couple rounds short of an expected Final Four run, it is clear that the program has righted and stabilized itself under his careful yet persistent direction. Even with the loss of two high NBA draft picks in Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, Indiana returns enough talent in dynamic point guard Yogi Ferrell, do-everything wing Will Sheehey, Arizona State transfer Evan Gordon and superstar big man Noah Vonleh to keep the trip to Assembly Hall a daunting proposition for the rest of the Big Ten. Also, we learned on Friday night that if Crean ever finds himself in need of a player who can dunk two basketballs at once, he should probably give Hanner Mosquera-Perea a hard look.
Oh, and at Kentucky? Wildcat fans were lining up for tickets for Big Blue Madness... two weeks early.
College basketball is back. Even Sir Charles is excited.
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