While college basketball may have taken a backseat to the NBA over the last couple of decades, its signature event is still up there with the likes of the Super Bowl and college football’s national title game in terms of popularity. The NCAA basketball tournament – colloquially known as March Madness – is one of the most-watched sporting events in the United States every year.
What should you know about college hoops?
As mentioned above, the NCAA tourney is a marquee event. The unpredictable nature of the tournament has a way of attracting the attention of even the most casual of basketball fans. The NCAA announced that the first round of the 2017 tournament drew the event’s best television ratings since 1993 over the first weekend.
An average of more than nine million viewers tuned in for the first four days of the tournament, which was an increase of 10 percent over the 2016 bracket. Nearly 12 million people in America watched the first Sunday’s action, which was a whopping 34 percent hike from 2016, as well.
If college basketball isn’t as popular as the NBA, why is the tournament such a big deal, then?
Well, people want to see upsets. In a field of 68 teams, you’re always going to have a handful of lower-seeded teams pull off some shocking wins over more heavily-favored schools. Numerous shocking upsets occur on a yearly basis, and even the most decorated programs in the history of the sport have fallen victim at one time or another.
It also certainly helps that plenty of these programs have massive followings. Schools like North Carolina, Duke, UCLA, Kentucky and Kansas have alumni scattered all around the country. These schools are regulars in the tournament and have combined for a boatload of titles in the past. Whether people tune in to watch the big names win or to watch them lose to an underdog, these games generate tons of interest.
The selection process for the tourney is fairly extensive, but straightforward. 32 of the 68 teams that qualify for the men’s tournament get in via winning their respective conference’s championship. The remaining 36 teams get into the event via an at-large bid that is determined by the selection committee.
The selection committee is a 10-member panel consisting of athletic directors and conference commissioners from around Division 1, which is the top division of college basketball.
Committee members serve five-year terms in order to make sure that conferences from all around the country are represented equally.
Teams that qualify for the tourney with an at-large bid tend to come from the bigger conferences, the ACC, American, Atlantic 10, Big 12, Big Ten, Big East, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC. The committee’s job is to determine which 32 teams that did not win their respective conference are deserving of making it to the big dance anyway.
Factors such as strength of schedule, neutral site performance and record against other tournament teams are considered when deciding which teams to include in the tournament.
The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) largely consists of teams that narrowly missed inclusion into the NCAA tournament. It is played at the same time as the NCAA tourney, though doesn’t draw nearly the same amount of national interest.
While the tournament is still hugely popular, college basketball’s regular season has seen a massive dip in recent years. Considering much of college basketball’s regular season takes place while the NFL, NBA and NHL are all in full swing, it’s easy to see how college hoops may fall down the pecking order a bit.
However, a serious source of concern for college basketball may be the fact that the best players often don’t stay in college for very long. In years past, some of the most decorated high school basketball players in America would forgo college altogether and jump straight into the professional ranks.
Future Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone was the first player to do so when he jumped from high school straight to the ABA back in 1974. Leaving high school for college was something that rarely happened in the subsequent 20 years, until a slew of players began doing so in the mid-to-late 1990s. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Dwight Howard are just a few of the huge names that made the decision to skip college and go to the NBA.
Starting in 2005, though, the NBA changed their eligibility rules. Now, players must be at least 19-years-old before becoming eligible to play in the league. As a result, the top high school players in the country now have to go either play at least one year of college ball or go play professionally overseas for at least a season.
While this rule certainly helps college in one way, it hurts in another. It’s certainly good for college hoops that the most highly-touted young players in the country are playing in college for at least one season. That helps the quality of play, and also attracts plenty of attention from people more inclined to watch the NBA. Fans can watch tomorrow’s NBA superstars before they make it to the league.
However, the rule also hurts continuity with college hoops. With so many players coming and going in the span of a year, teams are constantly having to change their respective identities. Fans aren’t able to really embrace one roster with the knowledge that the team will probably look completely different in a year.
The debate over whether the NBA should change the rule rages on, though there is no indication that it will change any time soon.
In spite of the aforementioned new issue regarding players leaving college early, there are still plenty of players that will live on forever in college basketball lore. Not all of these players would go on to have success (or even play in) the NBA, but they represent their respective schools proudly regardless.
Lew Alcindor is considered by many to be the most dominant college player ever. You may know him now as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the man formerly known as Alcindor was so dominant during his three-year stint at UCLA that the NCAA literally changed the rules to make it less easy for him to dominate.
The 7’3” Alcindor towered over his opponents, and defenders had nightmares trying to stop him. The NCAA banned dunking from 1967 until 1976, likely as a result of how easy it was for Alcindor to crush opposing teams.
He would lead UCLA to a national title in all three of his eligible seasons at the school prior to enjoying a Hall of Fame NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
LSU’s Pete Maravich was a player that came before his time. He was an absolutely electrifying phenom that lit up the entire country during his time in college in the late 1960s and early 70s. He averaged a whopping 44.2 points over the course of his three seasons with the Tigers, and his showmanship brought previously unforeseen personality into the game. Maravich would go on to enjoy a stellar but abbreviated NBA career before being forced to retire early due to injuries.
Former Virginia standout Ralph Sampson’s dominance in the 1980s was akin to Alcindor’s in the 60s. The 7’4” giant won the Naismith Player of the Year award three times and played the game with an effortless efficiency despite his huge frame. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated a whopping six times in the span of less than four years during his college career, and led the Cavaliers to a pair of deep runs into the tournament.
As for coaches, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is surely the most well-known men’s college coach in America these days. He has led the previously-unheralded Blue Devils from relative obscurity and helped turn them into a college basketball powerhouse. Since taking over in 1980, Krzyzewski has won over 1,000 games with Duke, as well as five national championships, 12 Final Four appearances, 14 ACC tournament championships and 12 ACC regular season titles. He has been named Naismith College Coach of the Year three times, as well.
Krzyzewski’s longtime rival, Dean Smith, is also widely regarded as one of the giants of the sport. Smith coached Duke’s chief rival, North Carolina, from 1961 until his retirement in 1997. Smith led the Tar Heels to a pair of national championships as well as 11 Final Fours, 13 ACC tourney titles, 17 ACC regular season championships and an NIT title. Smith won 879 games at the helm of the team, which was the most in history at the time of his retirement.
Perhaps the most decorated college coach of all-time is UCLA’s John Wooden. Following a brief stint in charge of Indiana State in the late 1940s, Wooden moved to UCLA in 1948 and led the Bruins into their golden era.
UCLA won a record 10 national championships with Wooden patrolling the sidelines, in addition to 12 Final Four appearances. He was AP College Coach of the Year five times and earned a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. Wooden coached some of the best players of all-time as well, including Alcindor and Bill Walton. He was known for being an excellent motivator and focused his messages to his players on life itself in addition to basketball.