For college basketball fans, the world comes alive in March. But November through February provides plenty of comfort through the dark and cold of winter as well, with invitational tournaments, inter-conference play and then the regular conference season offering matchups that are stories in their own right.
The opening slate of games in college basketball is great, but the best comes after Christmas. When winter is in full swing, the conference games begin, with some of the best rivalries in sports getting two games a season, then another matchup in the conference playoffs if the chips fall the right way. Tom Izzo and Thad Matta are just a couple of the Big Ten coaches staring each other down, Georgetown shows its force against Syracuse, and — best of all — Tobacco Road becomes a playground for the titans of Duke and North Carolina, both against each other and facing their neighboring, never-go-away rivals Wake Forest and N.C. State.
But a change is coming for college basketball, and it extends beyond simply mixing up the early-season invitational tournaments or nonconference scheduling. The change affects the guts of the college basketball season — the conference matchups — and is threatening to destroy the fabric of what has made college basketball’s regular season so good for so long.
That change is realignment, where schools are hopping conferences and changing allegiances that have stood for decades, all in the name of money. The worst part is that, while the massive amount of switching is supposed to be a boon for the schools, it will greatly benefit one college sport (football) while eroding the unarguable pinnacle of college sports (the basketball playoff system of March Madness).
By realigning the conferences — primarily the Big East and ACC — college football is shoring up its moneymaking while ravaging another sport’s tradition and flavor.
Now, the NCAA Tournament (which has been so successful that college football is trying to become more like it, which is pretty unusual considering college basketball is the kid brother in this situation) will likely not be affected by realignment. Teams will still qualify for March Madness the same way, and the right number of good teams should go to the tournament, no matter which conference they’re in.
But that misses the essence of college basketball. The NCAA Tournament is the frosting on the cake, the reward at the end of the hunt and the best part of the sport — but you have to have the original cake, hunt or sport for the culmination to be great.
Realignment threatens that, because two of college basketball’s crown jewels — the ACC and the Big East — are not only getting scrambled but are about to lose their identity in the shuffling. Realignment is wrecking the regular season and making college basketball no more than a hodgepodge of team names and mascots, nothing more than the NBA or college football mess that college basketball has long been superior to.
Take the ACC, for example. While the ACC stinks in college football, it is a distinctly great college basketball outpost. In the ACC, the features that make people love college basketball are on display — team play among lottery picks and four-year players, great passing and 3-point shooting, blue-chip players, top-notch coaching, and fluid games and play-calling. The ACC has a certain flavor and familiarity, and it has formed a brand of its own within college basketball. Rivalries, distinct coaches and legendary moments bolster its traditions and styles of play.
The Big East is just as unique a conference, in its own ways. Teams like Pitt, Georgetown and St. John’s have brought a certain physicality to the conference, and Syracuse and UConn have become perennial contenders behind great coaches and distinct styles of play. When ACC and Big East teams tangle, the different styles come through, making the NCAA Tournament and other interconference matchups great. Those different styles of play start within the regular season, where teams have honed their identity over years and are forced to adjust within their conference to build a winning record against a certain type of play.
The unique nature of the conferences — and the brands of basketball that emerge from them — are just one part of the argument, though.
The real travesty here is that these conferences are families of one-of-a-kind teams that, if dismembered, would destroy much of what college basketball is. The differences from school to school and how these differences play out through conferences and individual loyalty is part of the allure of the sport.
These basketball teams just seem right in the conferences where they’ve always played, and where they’ve always played each other. The rivalries that began years ago thanks to geography or great competition have continued for years for good reason. Mention Syracuse, and someone thinks Georgetown. Say Duke, and it’s not only North Carolina but also Maryland. These teams have a lineage and tradition in their conferences that makes the sport special.
Syracuse is a great basketball school. But it’s also a great Big East basketball school. It has always played its games against the likes of UConn, Providence and St. John’s. But thanks to realignment, it will now face North Carolina, Duke, Boston College and Virginia each year. The guts that make up the way this team is built and the history it has made are being swapped for a new storyline.
In the ACC, the epic regular-season battles between a Gary Williams-led Terrapins team and the Cameron Crazies will be no more (well, Williams has been gone, but still). In its place will be Louisville-Duke, and something just seems wrong about Rick Pitino coaching in the ACC. Not to mention that the Big East has virtually none of its former powers left, with Pitt, Louisville, Notre Dame and Louisville all migrating. The ACC is a powerhouse now, but it’s a powerhouse built on basically eating the Big East whole.
(Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has his thoughts about the lunacy of realignment and what it means for rivalries. He also suggested that the U.S. should have made Argentina a state in that interview, so he may have been upset.)
They’re just conferences, right? Just little ways to organize the teams, and redo the schedules? If the rivalries are so important, they can schedule them during nonconference play, right? The best teams will still make the tournament, right? College basketball has been realigned before, hasn’t it?
Maybe. But for those who follow college basketball and know the kind of gems that can be found mid-winter — as well as how every team that makes it to March Madness is shaped by the conference it plays in and which unique coaching style drove that team through its usual regular-season thicket — know that a good deal of the heart of college basketball is getting tossed to the side with all this realignment junk.
Sports have been cheapened in recent years, and just because something can be changed doesn’t mean it should. You can start up minor league teams and send a mascot around the park, handing out free T-shirts. You can blow the NHL beyond its borders and try to convince people that hockey is a great idea for Phoenix. You can say that there will be new college basketball rivalries, and that Boeheim makes just as much sense coaching across from Mike Krzyzewski in the regular season.
But real college basketball fans know what has happened, and it’s a bit of a bitter pill that the ACC and Big East will take it on the chin in basketball when the entire world knows that college football, with its bloated big deals and inability to make a better playoff, got the good part of this deal.