February is always a crossroads for sports, when you think about it. Football doesn’t have much of a post Super Bowl afterglow, unless you’re fascinated with fourth-string free agent news.
Hockey–that great consolation prize from the north with the de facto cult following–struggles this year to find any post-lockout traction with fans.
America’s Pastime begins to heat up, but unless you’re a diehard fan, pitchers and catchers reporting isn’t going to merit much water cooler conversation.
NASCAR graces us with the Daytona 500, yet in spite of its growing popularity, it can’t seem to escape its own esoteric shadow (Danica Patrick might change that, but…)
The NBA distracts us with the All-Star break, but it’s lacked anything of substance since the 1990′s, and it is a shell of its 1980′s heyday. (Quick: name three contestants in the dunk contest this year, no peeking).
Then you have NCAA basketball: Rivalry weeks, with conference tournaments around the corner; giants falling and upstarts peppering the Top 25, all of them jockeying for March Madness position.
To borrow from college football parlance, “every week is the playoffs.” We’re not trying to convince you that nothing else sporting is worth watching this month, far from it. We’re simply pointing out three ways that this year–this month–is shaping up to be unique, and why you won’t regret watching.
There Are No Clear-Cut Dominant Teams
Last year, we had Kentucky “and everyone else.” 1990, we had UNLV, “and everyone else.” It happens every few years; those are two examples of two particularly transcendent teams.
Not so this year, as any casual glance at a team’s schedule will reveal. Indiana, Duke, Syracuse–all have fallen to unranked teams while being ranked in the top ten at some point this year. Miami has looked the best, but they’re new to the big boy mix, and we really don’t know how they’ll respond to a feisty team when they’re having an off day in March.
We don’t know who will step up this year, as every team has vulnerabilities. It’s anyone’s title to win, which will supply plenty of drama, even for the casual fan. Upsets abound, and the NCAA has taken a page from the NFL’s Keys to Winning Over Fans: parity, parity, parity.
Kentucky and North Carolina May Not Make the Tourney
Here you go: the classic “something different” that you’ve been looking for. It’s not all about rooting against a team or two, but this is significant.
It hasn’t happened since 1974, both tradition-rich schools missing out on the big dance. This year, it could happen again, as both schools have struggled with a variety of pitfalls: injuries, lack of cohesiveness, and improved play from previously lackluster competition (UNC has Miami to worry about, UK has Mississippi and Tennessee to worry about).
We like to call it the Blue-Blood Bubble Watch, actually. Kentucky is 17-8, and under the watchful eye of the selection committee, bombed its first post-Nerlens Noel test, getting shellacked by UT. Can they recover? Probably, they’ll play for pride and ease in, but if they get another bad loss they’ll have to win the SEC tournament.
UNC is 17-8, and got a much-needed win over Virginia Saturday. An ACC tournament win is probably out of the question, with Duke and Miami playing as well as they are, so they pretty much have to win the rest of their games against teams not named Duke (who is their opponent in the season finale).
The “Little” Guys are Making Some Noise
Gonzaga, Memphis, Creighton and Butler are just a few of the teams from non-power conferences that are set up for possible deep tournament runs. There’s tradition there, sure; it’s not like we’re implying that they’re strangers to March success. But if you’re not part of the big six BCS conferences, you have to wait until Spring to prove your mettle.
The Zags are rolling, ranked #3 in the country. They, along with the 25th-ranked Memphis Tigers, are dogged by the same type of questions: “just how good are they?”
It’s hard to tell, considering the weak conferences that they dominate every year (WCC and CUSA, respectively), but you know they will bust some brackets on a neutral court come tournament time.
Creighton is not only ranked #23, but they feature a Player of the Year candidate in Doug McDermott.
And let’s not forget #10 Butler, who we can’t really call a Cinderella anymore, given their year-in, year-out success. Yet they still manage to sneak up on teams; it’s almost as if the big boys know of their recent Final Four success, but haven’t processed it. Who knows, but we as fans are not complaining.
This year, it’s anybody’s tournament. The drawback, of course, is that brackets will be a pain to fill out, but it’s a small price to pay for quality, down-to-the-wire basketball.
The best part? We don’t have to wait until March for the excitement and drama to begin. Just ask Kentucky and North Carolina.
For 2013, March Madness has annexed February, too. Enjoy.