Monday November 9th, 2009

So did you know Monday is Opening Day in college basketball?

Okay, you probably did, because you are a bona fide hoophead. But what about the guy in the cubicle next to you, the one who right now is secretly checking on his NFL fantasy team? Or what about the fella who sat across from you on the subway this morning reading the paper as it was meant to be read, sports, and then everything else? And your brother-in-law, who likes basketball but mostly follows the NBA? Does he know today is the big day?

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Chances are, they don't. That's largely because college basketball has the unfortunate task of beginning its season at a time when the World Series has just ended and all the other major sports are well underway. But the obscurity exists also because the people who have the most influence over the sport have neglected to devise an Opening Day that breaks through all the clutter. It's a sad commentary that the start of practice, Midnight Madness, attracts so much more attention than the commencement of actual games.

The idea to create an Opening Day was supposed to be part of the mission undertaken by the College Basketball Partnership that was created in 2004 at the behest of Myles Brand, the late NCAA president. The group brought together about two dozen people who respresented the various stakeholders of the game: coaches (Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo), conference commissioners, athletic directors, media executives and TV commentators like Billy Packer and Clark Kellogg. When Brand announced the formation of the group, he did not promise how long it would exist or how often it would meet. He simply said he wanted to create a forum that would serve as an incubator of ideas, and that those ideas would soon grow into real initiatives.

The group undertook a flurry of activity in its first two years, but it soon petered out and hasn't met since 2006. Some of the early ideas have come to pass, most notably the academic reforms that Brand made the heart of his tenure. The CBP also birthed the joint initiative between the NCAA and NBA, recently re-branded iHoops, to address the ills that plague grassroots basketball. The Opening Day idea, which has been heavily promoted over the years by former Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt, was on the group's short list as well, but the panel's plate got very full very quickly. As a result, Opening Day fell by the wayside.

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Greg Shaheen, the NCAA's senior vice president for basketball and business strategies, agrees that this idea is long overdue, but he also concedes it won't be easy to get all the moving parts into place. "It's a little bit like herding cats," he says. The NCAA may want to start by looking at the rule stating that teams cannot begin playing regular season games before the second Friday of November. (Tonight's four contests, which are part of the 2K Sports benefiting Coaches Versus Cancer, are exempted because they resulted from contracts that were signed before January 8, 2006.) If there are not enough teams that are willing to play games at that early date, the NCAA may want to look at pushing it back a week -- which might be a good idea anyway, since so many people (including me) believe the season starts too early.

Even if the NCAA could create an Opening Day, it would have to decide the best way to execute it. They could adopt the NFL and college football tactics of beginning with a Big Bang, where two of the most prominent programs face off in the only game of the night. Or, they could take the more scattershot baseball-style approach in which hundreds of games are played on the same evening.

Then there's the question of deciding what day this should all take place. With the weekends being consumed by college and pro football, it seems the most logical time would be Friday night, when the only competition would come from high school football. In the end, however, it doesn't matter what day or night is chosen and who plays so long as the NCAA and its media partners pursue the notion with gusto.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anybody of influence really concentrating on making this happen at the moment, but Shaheen hopes it will become a priority. "I don't know that there's a lot of momentum, but there's a consensus that we need to explore the best ways to try and unify around an opening day or opening weekend in a way that paints a clearer picture for college basketball," he said. "There's no easy answer, but it's definitely something we have to take on."

Let's hope they do. I'm as excited as anyone that the new season is finally getting underway. I just wish it started with a bang instead of a whimper.

• I've written/tweeted that Seton Hall was my number one sleeper team this season. But if I confined myself to west of the Mississippi River, I'd go with USC. This is partly a reflection on the weakness of the Pac-10, but despite all the turmoil that has taken place since Tim Floyd's resignation, the Trojans still have a solid starting five. I'm hearing Alex Stepheson, the transfer from North Carolina, might end up being the best frontcourt player in the league.

• Keeping us out west, I don't know that there's a team in America that has had a more disastrous preseason than UCLA. The latest blow came Sunday, when the school announced freshman forward Tyler Honeycutt, who had already been inactive for most of the summer and fall because of a back injury, will be out three to four weeks because of a stress reaction in his leg that he suffered during practice. I still think it's more likely than not that the Bruins will make the NCAA tournament, but it is not going to be a pretty season in Westwood.

• I hate to say it because he's such a great guy, but I don't know of anyone who thinks Jerry Wainwright is going to survive another season at DePaul. The administration restructured his contract last year to make his buyout more affordable, and they also forced Wainwright to rejigger his staff. That, plus another potential winless season in the Big East, would likely seal his fate. Should Wainwright lose his job, the names of two Chicago natives will instantly be bandied about as likely replacements: Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, who brings extra cachet as the brother-in-law of a certain former Illinois state senator, and FIU's Isiah Thomas.

• Regarding my blog entry on the NCAA's recruiting reforms package, some questions have arisen over the fact that the prohibition against hiring a player's AAU coach/father/mentor is limited to non-staff positions like director of basketball operations or video coordinator. Why would the NCAA do this? Won't coaches now get around the new rules by simply hiring these middlemen as fulltime assistants?

The answer is that in the past, coaches have mostly stashed their package hires in those lower-rung positions. Thus, if the NCAA tried to include fulltime assistants in the new rule, it would be more vulnerable to a legal challenge because there is no established history there. But if head coaches start using the fulltime assistant positions for their package hires, then the NCAA would be in a stronger legal position to pass a rule against doing that as well. So my advice for coaches is simple: Don't go there. The days of hiring a guy to get a guy are hopefully over.

• I've been talking to a few NBA scouts lately, and I can tell you that if at the end of the season Kyle Singler's three-point percentage begins with a 4, it will make a huge difference in his draft stock.

• Did you catch the sharp elbow Roy Williams threw at Michigan State sophomore Delvon Roe in his new autobiography? Williams doesn't call out Roe by name, but he does tell a story about how he celebrated when a recruit told him he was coming to North Carolina, only to have that same recruit tell him six weeks later he was going to Michigan State. Williams wrote that the player -- who is obviously Roe -- "lied" to him. That should make for a nice little subplot when those teams have their national championship game reunion on December 1.

• Last year was clearly a down year for mid-majors, but now the middies are back up. Besides the usual suspects like Butler, Siena and Gonzaga, nearly a dozen other mid-majors are beginning the season with legitimate hopes of reaching the tournament's second weekend. They include Northern Iowa, which is leading a resurgence in the Missouri Valley Conference, as well as Dayton, Tulsa, BYU, VCU and Western Kentucky. Let's hope the selection committee goes out of its way to extend bids to these guys, because we all know how difficult it is for them to put together quality nonconference schedules.

• As bad as the last month has been for Minnesota coach Tubby Smith -- who suspended three of his players for an array of off-court malfeasances that include theft, assault and battery, can you imagine how much worse his life would be if those distractions came while he was still coaching under the klieg lights in Lexington? You think Tubby has sent any thank you notes to Brett Favre for sucking up all of the media oxygen in that state?

• The season hasn't even begun and Rick Pitino is already calling out Terrence Jennings for not working hard enough over the summer. When you have to push one of your key player's buttons after an exhibition game, it's not a good sign.

• Georgia Tech is beginning the season with high expectations. The Jackets are ranked 20th in the coaches' poll and 22nd in the AP poll. So it has to be a concern that Georgia Tech needed to go to overtime to beat Indiana (Pa.) in an exhibition game Sunday night. Freshman Derrick Favors grabbed nine rebounds, but on the whole Georgia Tech was out-rebounded by three. I'm guessing that will be a point of emphasis for Paul Hewitt at the next few practices.

• There's plenty of blame to go around in the Marcus Jordan sneaker fiasco at UCF, but I don't see how anyone can direct some of that blame at the kid. I love this little kerfuffle because it highlights how corrupt it is that schools feel they can dictate to their players what sneakers they can wear. It's obvious someone made a promise they couldn't keep. Either the school told Jordan he could wear Nikes without clearing it through adidas, or someone at adidas told the school that Jordan could wear Nikes without clearing it through the higher-ups. Either way, it's understandable why Jordan wouldn't want to wear adidas, and if everyone had just left him alone it wouldn't have been a big deal. But adidas felt compelled to take a stand, and now everybody looks plain silly. Is this a great country or what?

Jim Calhoun told me over the summer he was going to retire if UConn had won the championship last season. I'm not sure he really would have done it had it gotten to that point, but it was an interesting window into his mindset.

• I wonder if Arizona fans realize just how close they were to getting John Calipari as their coach. If the Kentucky job hadn't opened, I'd say there was about a 75 percent chance Cal was going to end up in Tucson. That's why Arizona's coaching search looked so disorganized at the end. They thought they had their man.

• I find the annual debate over which is the best conference to be both tiresome and irresistible. (Story of my life.) So for now I'll say that this season the designation will be deciced by the teams in the middle tiers of these leagues. That's why I'm giving an advantage at the start to the Big East. Seton Hall, St. John's, Cincinnati and Rutgers are going to be better than they have been in years (not saying much I realize), and even in down seasons Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Syracuse will at least be bubble-worthy. I also think the middle of the Big 12 is stronger than people realize. Consider that Baylor was picked to finish ninth in the preseason. Thus, my order of the BCS leagues going into the season (and always subject to change) stands as follows: Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-10.

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