In past seasons, December had been the month in which many college basketball powerhouses loaded up on lesser opponents and eased their way into conference play after the start of the new year.
However, the first month of this season has been loaded with appealing matchups and many of the nation's top teams have met. Many of the games were arranged by television networks, particularly ESPN, as a way to enhance viewership.
"Most of the games that happen in November and December that we are televising, we have needed to arrange," said Mike Soltys, ESPN's director of communications. "The ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Great Eight and Jimmy V Classic are events that we own, create and market the whole thing, often with a partner."
Other games get set up because they are in "exempt" events--such as many of the tournaments in Alaska or Hawaii or Puerto Rico, the Great Eight Classic and the Preseason NIT--that the NCAA does not count toward teams' limit of 28 regular season games.
Of this week's top 10 teams, seven have played at least two opponents that are in this week's rankings. No. 10 Duke has played five, and No. 5 Michigan State has played four and last night lost at Kentucky, which fell out of the rankings last week. Of the top 10, only Syracuse has not played a ranked opponent.
Teams schedule these high-profile games mainly for three reasons: financial guarantees for playing them, TV exposure and improving their position in the rankings the NCAA Division I men's basketball committee uses to select the 34 at-large teams for its tournament.
"I think a lot of it has to do with getting into the tournament," said Tom Mickle, associate commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Also, when someone from a TV network calls, it is difficult to refuse an offer, said Maryland Coach Gary Williams, whose team played Kentucky earlier this month in the return game of a home-and-away series brokered by ESPN. Maryland plays at Temple on Feb. 13 in the return game of a home-and-away arranged by ABC.
"My first four years here, we did not get any calls," Williams said. "You have to work to get that. You do not get that automatically. . . . If you get asked [by a television network], it is kind of an honor."
Entering the season, Arizona State guard Eddie House was regarded as one of the nation's best returning scorers after he finished second in the Pacific-10 Conference last season at 18.9 points per game. But when he endured a shooter's worst nightmare--an 0-for-16 performance in a 78-67 loss to Brigham Young on Dec. 7--House had what seemed to be too much time, 11 days, to think about it before the Sun Devils' next game.
Instead, in a remarkable turnaround, he scored 37 of his school-record 46 points in the first half and led Arizona State to a 99-85 victory over San Diego State on Saturday.
House finished 18 of 29 from the field (6 of 8 from three-point range) and had four steals, three rebounds and three assists.
For the season, the 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 17.1 points and shooting 39.5 percent. . . . Because of No. 25 North Carolina State's 73-62 loss at Tulane on Wednesday, the Wolfpack's first stay in the Associated Press rankings likely will last only one week. Still, their return to the top 25 for the first time since Jan. 16, 1990, meant the four Atlantic Coast Conference teams from North Carolina were all ranked for the first time since Dec. 20, 1960. In addition to Duke, North Carolina is No. 6 and Wake Forest is No. 23. . . .
As for Tulane, the Green Wave (8-1) has won seven consecutive games since a 78-70 loss to Maryland on Nov. 19. Since losing to Maryland on Nov. 17, San Francisco has won nine straight.
Several transfers are becoming eligible at the end of the fall semester, but they will have a hard time matching the impact of former Georgetown swingman Shernard Long.
After sitting out the past year following his transfer to Georgia State, Long averaged 28.5 points in his first two games with Coach Lefty Driesell's Panthers and led them to their first two victories of the season. Long scored 25 points in his Georgia State debut, a 74-66 victory over Central Michigan this past Saturday. On Monday, Long scored 32 points in a 83-73 victory over Southern University. Georgia State is 2-6. . . .
After missing Utah's first eight games because of a knee injury, forward Hanno Mottola scored 16 points in an 84-58 victory over Chicago State this past Saturday. The 6-10 senior, who is expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft next spring, followed that with a career-high 32 points in a 79-73 victory over No. 14 Texas on Wednesday.
Mottola's return was particularly important because the Utes recently lost starting center Nate Althoff for two weeks because of a sprained ankle and starting point guard Trent Whiting is out for the season because of a congenital condition in his femur. . . .
Every Southern California starter has played all 40 minutes of at least one game this season. . . . Playing freshmen is the norm nowadays, but Alabama has taken things to a new level. With senior center Jeremy Hays out with a season-ending knee injury, the Crimson Tide's starting lineup contains four freshman and a sophomore junior college transfer. . . . Top-ranked Stanford expects forward Mark Madsen (strained hamstring) to return next week, just in time for him to be in good form for the Cardinal's home game against No. 3 Arizona on Jan. 8, the teams' second Pac-10 game of the season.
Considering New Mexico's 70-68 victory at then-No. 2 Arizona on Tuesday, a game that ended the Wildcats' 37-game home winning streak, maybe the Lobos should consider playing more road games. After going 71-3 at home in The Pit over the past four seasons, New Mexico (6-5 entering last night's game against New Mexico State) already has lost three home games under first-year coach Fran Fraschilla. . . . There was plenty of embarrassment to go around following Louisville's 76-46 loss to Kentucky on Saturday, but perhaps the most unusual statistic was that the Cardinals' football team scored 10 more points against its instate rival (a 56-28 Louisville victory) than did the basketball team this season. The Cardinals bounced back to upset No. 6 North Carolina last night, 97-80. . . .
Scores of the week: West Virginia 100, Bowling Green 54--the Falcons entered the game 6-1; Marshall 127, Western Michigan 126 in double overtime.
CAPTION: Jason Williams, left, and Duke have faced five ranked teams and ACC play has not even started.