With just two more wins, the Kentucky Wildcats will be national champions and debated as one of the greatest college basketball teams of all-time. One loss, however, one lousy performance against a hot-shooting team, and Kentucky’s season will be considered a disappointment. And I’m perfectly OK with that.
It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the world we live in. November tournaments in Maui and New York are fun; regular season games are intense; conference tournaments are meaningful. But college basketball seasons come down to three weeks in March. This is a credit to the design of the Tournament and how great it is, though many worry it highlights the dwindling importance of the rest of the season.
College football is in this weird place where the regular season is more meaningful than most bowl games. Getting to a bowl is great, but wins against rivals seem to hold more weight. Don’t get me wrong: In all sports the championship is going to be the most important thing—the Super Bowl, the World Series, the BCS National Championship. But in college basketball, performance in the NCAA Tournament is so much more important than anything else. Guys like Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens became highly sought-after coaches because of their success in March.
For Kentucky, 36-2 heading into Saturday’s Final Four showdown with Louisville, it’s national championship or bust. But the Tourney’s significance extends to less ambitious schools as well. Look at Michigan. The Wolverines had no realistic shot at a national title, but given their seed and matchups they were expected to reach the Sweet 16. Instead, they were bounced by 13 seed Ohio in the first round. Does that take away from Michigan’s share of the Big Ten regular season title or its wins against Michigan State and Ohio State? No, but many fans won’t view this season as a success. That’s just the nature of the Tournament.
The flip side is that mid-majors, and major conference teams that underperformed during the season, stand to gain a lot from the Big Dance. North Carolina State and Florida didn’t do as well as they would have liked in the regular season, but reached the Sweet 16 and Elite 8, respectively. After upsetting Michigan, Ohio beat South Florida and then took top seed North Carolina to overtime before losing. Sure enough, Ohio’s head coach, John Groce, just accepted the same position at Illinois.
There is growing concern over college basketball becoming a one-month sport, and I certainly know people who only pay attention in March. I’m all for efforts to increase the popularity of the regular season, but even if that happens the NCAA Tournament will still be king. Coaches will still be fired for not making the field or, at the top programs, for not advancing far enough. Players who excel in March will become household names and increase their NBA potential. Seasons will be judged by the results of a single-elimination Tournament played over the course of three long weekends.
And that’s absolutely fine by me.