Every sport has its quirks. I suspect for those of you who are rediscovering college basketball -- or experiencing it in depth for the very first time -- watching these games is a little like hearing a familiar song, only with different lyrics.
That's why your resident Hoop Thinker has stepped forward to present my NBA Fan's Guide to College Basketball. Just as the good doctor James Naismith divined his original 13 rules back in 1891, I have put together my own 13-point plan for the NBA orphan. You should know, by the way, that Naismith's first coaching job was not in a professional league but in college -- Kansas, to be exact. It only took two years for the first college basketball game to be played, but it was decades before the first vestiges of pro ball were sighted. So think of this not just as a return to your roots, but to the game's as well.
If you're feeling abandoned, a little lost in translation, you'll find college basketball to be a cozy companion this winter. So pop on a Snuggie, pick up the remote, and get ready for an entertaining winter. Herewith, the 13 rules (second edition):
1. Don't waste time wondering whether the players you're watching can make it in the NBA.
The reality is, the vast majority of them won't spend a moment in the league -- and that includes some potential All-Americas. (Please don't tell them this. Most every college player assumes he's a lottery pick.) And you know what? So what! There's nothing wrong with being "just" a great college player.
The tired, chronic, how-will-he-do-in-the-NBA conversation has always been overdone. Last year it reached farcical dimensions after Jimmer Fredette bombed a few 40-point games, and all you heard from radio hosts the next day was whether he would make a good pro. (He will, IMHO.) Real basketball fans appreciate a well-played, hard-fought game whether it's a fifth-grade biddy league or the NBA Finals. So don't overthink it. Appreciate these players for what they are, not what they're not.
2. Follow the mid-majors.
It may surprise you to learn that there is no official definition of a "mid-major." I suggest you apply the obscenity standard -- you'll know it when you see it. And you'll see it a lot because almost every game played is on national television, even at the quote-unquote mid-major level.
My advice is to track the standings in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Mountain West, the CAA, the West Coast Conference, the Atlantic 10 and the Horizon League, to name a few. When you see on the schedule that the top teams are going to play each other, give a looksie. You'll be surprised at the quality of the play. You'll also be surprised how much the games mean to those schools and their fans.
3. Get used to seeing coaches on your TV screen.
I'll bet some of you couldn't even name the coach of every NBA team. That's because the NBA, bless its heart, is a players' league. College basketball, on the other hand, revolves around the coaches, the mainstays. Unfortunately, that means you'll see lots of men in suits popping up on your screen ad infinitum. Sometimes they'll pop up in a corner box while the game is going on, even if they're not doing anything particularly interesting. Once in a while, a coach will actually conduct an interview during the game. You'll think the fixation on these guys is silly. You'll be right.
4. Be ready to see lots of flopping.
Yes, the pros tend to whine to the officials if they miss a shot or turn the ball over, but for the most part they're real men who are too proud to flop. College players, not so much. I love it when a player tries an obvious flop and doesn't get a call. When that happens, rejoice with me.
5. Don't expect the reffing to be any better down here than it is up there.
No matter what level of basketball you're watching, the only thing everyone seems to agree on is that the refs suck. Of course, just how much they suck and why depends on which team you're rooting for. Personally, I've come to believe in what I call the 85-10-5 rule. The refs get about 85 percent of the calls (or non-calls) correct. Ten percent of their calls are incorrect but understandable. The remaining five percent go into the bonehead category -- which generates about 95 percent of the water cooler discussion the next day.
All-in-all, that's a pretty good percentage -- certainly better than your success rate at your job -- but please don't let that stop you from bitching about the way your favorite team got robbed. It's part of the fun.
6. Don't overreact to upsets.
When a first-place NBA team loses to a lousy squad, you guys rightly shrug it off. What's one or two missteps in the midst of an 82-game marathon? Yet for some reason, college fans turn into Chicken Littles any time a top-10 team trips over an inferior outfit. I remember in 2007, when Florida lost four out of six games in February, everybody assumed they were done. All they did was win their second straight title.
I know you're too smart to fall for this trap. Two general rules: There's almost no such thing as an upset when it's a true road game. (Pay attention to the difference between a neutral/road neutral game and a true road game. As Paris Hilton would say, it's huuuuuge.) Timing and motivation also matter. In February, for example, there are usually a lot of upsets because the big boys have pretty much sealed their NCAA tournament fates, while the upstarts are fighting for their at-large lives. Upsets make for eye-catching headlines, but in the grand scheme, they shouldn't alter your opinions too much.
7. Don't expect to see a lot of really good international players.
As any Mavericks fan knows, foreign players have really spiced up the NBA. Unfortunately, the NCAA has yet to riddle a path for these guys to play ball in the States. That's because there is no high school and AAU equivalent overseas, which means the really elite foreign players (e.g., the Enes Kanters and Ricky Rubios of the world) basically become professionalized before they can apply to a U.S. college. You'll still see plenty of good foreigners, but they'll mostly be suiting up for second-tier power conference teams and mid-major schools.
8. Get into recruiting.
Face it, dude, you're a geek. Welcome to the club. Just as you've become obsessed with the draft, it's time you become a self-styled "expert" in recruiting. This is where the real action is, and it has become much easier to follow because of the Internet.
When your boss or wife isn't looking (be especially discreet if your boss is your wife), get on Google and bookmark a few websites. If you're going to root for a team, you can't just watch it play. You need to know whom that coach is recruiting, when that player is visiting, who else is in the hunt, and what kind of high school season the kid is having. There's plenty of video available out there, but don't get fooled by highlight reels. You think his hyper-obsessed stage dad is going to upload his sons' turnovers to YouTube?
9. Don't believe anyone who tries to tell you the regular season is meaningless.
Believe it or not, some people still peddle this balderdash. We refer to these well-meaning but misguided fellows as "college football fans." When they make this argument, by all means nod along and smile. But don't buy it.
In the first place, all of the early-season tournaments that are taking place this week have huge NCAA tournament implications. Many of these teams will be on the bubble in three months, in which case these nonconference results will loom large as the selection committee tries to discern differences on similar-looking resumes. These tournaments also present a unique opportunity for mid-majors to go up against a power conference school on a neutral court with neutral referees. Furthermore, once we get into February -- blissfully, right as the NFL season ends -- there will be dozens of games every night that will go a long way toward determining whether a team is in or out of the tournament. If you doubt me, just watch how hard these kids play. They know how much the regular season matters.
I will concede that college basketball doesn't eliminate teams from national title consideration during the first two months of the season like football does. Some of us actually think that's is a good thing.
10. Don't think that watching a lot of games will give you a better chance to win your NCAA tournament office pool.
If anything, it will have the reverse effect. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Otherwise, that annoying guy in the cubicle down the hall who has been talking your ear off about college hoops for years wouldn't regularly finish so far behind the I.T. chick who's never seen a game in her life.
Try this experiment: Take an empty bracket now and fill it out based purely on the seeds. Compare that to how your real bracket does in the pool. I'll bet the one without the teams is pretty close, if not better. Please don't be frustrated by this. Embrace it. Being wrong -- being surprised -- is what makes the NCAA tournament so riveting.
11. Speaking of being wrong, do not use my picks in your pool.
The best pool strategy is to be conservative. I like to pick lots of upsets, as should any self-styled expert. Anyone can pick three one seeds and a two to reach the Final Four. If you're a professional prognosticator (an oxymoron if ever there was one), all you have to do is nail one big upset pick and you can strut around like Nostra-frickin-damus.
12. Go to the Final Four.
This is good advice any year, but it's especially imperative this season because the Final Four is being held in the greatest city on the face of the Earth -- New Orleans. I would suggest arriving on Thursday night. Not only will that give you an extra night on Bourbon Street, it will also give you a chance to attend the Friday open practices. (Attendance is free. Think the Lakers would do that for you?) If you need to shave a day, leave on Sunday and watch the final at home. You'll want to tell all your buddies you were there. Just don't tell them what you did to get the beads.
13. Don't be a stranger.
I honestly hope the NBA comes back soon, and I'm assuming it will return by next season. Whenever it does, by all means enjoy your visits with LeBron, Kobe and Dirk. But I hope -- and I predict -- that you will never quite shake the college hoops bug you'll contract this winter. Even as you dive back into the NBA, keep checking out the college kids as you surf the dial, and focus more closely beginning in mid-February. College basketball may not have the same level of talent as the pros, and it has a funny way of doing business (conference expansion, recruiting violations, Byzantine NCAA rules, etc.). But at the end of the day, there's just nothing like it. You're probably figuring that out already.
So bundle up, my orphaned hoopheads, and enjoy the games. The NBA lockout may be a bummer, but eventually you'll be glad it forced you to give the great American sport of basketball the old college try.