Now that the college basketball season begins smack in the middle of the college football season (as in tonight) it is worth considering what the presidents of the 65 schools in Bowl Championship Series conferences like to say whenever the subject of a football playoff comes up: "Oh no, we can't do that. It would destroy the tradition of the bowls."
Ah yes, tradition, a wonderful part of college athletics. One need look no further when searching for great traditions than Maryland's ACC basketball opener this season: a Saturday afternoon game against a storied ACC rival . . . Boston College.
Except Boston College isn't a storied rival; it's a place where Gary Williams used to work. And the game isn't being played on a Saturday afternoon; it's on a Sunday night.
The same presidents who like to cite tradition as a reason for keeping the pox that is the BCS alive have taken most of college basketball's traditions and flushed them, all in the name of the one tradition that matters most to all of them: making money. The ACC is now a 12-team league that includes Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State -- all brought into the league to make more football money.
The ACC appears compact relative to the Big East, which at last check had approximately 53 teams. Okay, maybe it is only 16, but the Big East isn't really a league anymore, it is a confederation of teams that have little in common. DePaul is in the Big East? Marquette? One quivers in anticipation of the latest chapters in storied rivalries such as South Florida-Providence, Rutgers-Louisville or Seton Hall-Notre Dame. And let's not leave out the Atlantic 10, which now has 14 teams.
The good news is that college basketball will withstand all the silliness. There's still nothing better than being in a packed gym on a cold winter night, and the slippage in the quality of play at all levels of the game hasn't affected the quality of competition at the college level. There has never been a better two days of college basketball than last March's regional finals weekend: Two overtime games; one double-overtime game and a rout that was decided with all of 30 seconds left in regulation. That's why conference realignment, as foolish and greedy as it is, ultimately can't damage college basketball.
The season to come will have as many surprises as those that preceded it. The ending, which will come April 3 in Indianapolis, will be different than last season. North Carolina, the 2005 national champion, likely won't repeat, having lost its seven leading scorers, four of them non-seniors. Like college presidents, players almost always take the money when it's there.
The favorites as the new season begins are some of the usual suspects: Duke, Connecticut, Texas, Michigan State, Kentucky, Arizona. Throw them in a hat because any of them could win the national title. That being said, the most talented team has won the last two national titles: Carolina last year; Connecticut two years ago.
Duke is everyone's preseason No. 1, in part because the Blue Devils are old -- four seniors among their top seven players -- and in part because they're Duke. Seniors Shelden Williams and J.J. Redick are national player-of-the-year candidates, and Mike Krzyzewski has another excellent freshman class.
So does Jim Calhoun, who has a player-of-the-year candidate himself in sophomore Rudy Gay, whose presence at U-Conn. rather than Maryland still has Gary Williams seething. Calhoun will be without point guard Marcus Williams during the first semester because he and fellow point guard A.J. Price have been charged with stealing computer equipment from fellow students.
Some experts had Villanova, which hasn't been a serious player on the late March stage since 1988, ranked No. 2 before senior forward Curtis Sumpter hurt a knee in practice, probably ending his season before it began.
Texas gets leading scorer P.J. Tucker back from academic probation and will learn a lot about how good it might be when it plays Duke on Dec. 10 in the Meadowlands. Michigan State has most of its key players back from Tom Izzo's fourth Final Four team in seven seasons. Kentucky hasn't been to a Final Four since Tubby Smith won the national championship in 1998 in his first season. The Wildcats came as close as you can come a year ago -- losing that double overtime classic to Izzo's Spartans in the regional final. The only team that came closer and still missed was Arizona, which had a 15-point lead against Illinois with less than four minutes left in the Chicago regional final before unraveling.
"I think they were the best team in the country," Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said of the Wildcats. "If that game is played anywhere but Chicago, they win. And I think they go to St. Louis and win there too."
But the game was played in Chicago and Arizona didn't get to go to St. Louis.
Texas Tech didn't get to St. Louis either, but it did get to the round of 16, the first time a Bob Knight-coached team had played the second week of the NCAA tournament since 1994. Whether Knight's fifth Texas Tech team can go that far again is open to question. But if Knight can piece together 25 victories this season, he will match Dean Smith's 879 career victories. If he gets to 26, he will be the winningest coach in Division I history. And he will go on at great length about how irrelevant the record is to him. Sure it is.
Of course there are all plenty of other contenders and stories to be told both locally and around the country.
Maryland has three things going for it: lots of juniors and seniors, a chip on its shoulder after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 seasons and no John Gilchrist. George Washington, the 2005 Atlantic 10 champion, is picked to win the A-14 (rolls off your tongue, doesn't it?) and should return to the NCAA tournament. Georgetown, a surprise last season under rookie coach John Thompson III, should be improved and could return to the tournament for the first time since 2001.
It is worth remembering that a year ago at this time no one dreamed Washington would be a No. 1 seed or that West Virginia would come within seconds of the Final Four. People thought Illinois had a nice team, but no one was predicting 37-2 and a trip to the championship game for the Illini. It was laughable to think that Bucknell would be the team that would end Kansas's season or that Vermont would send Syracuse packing on the same remarkable night.
That's why college basketball is still worth caring about, despite school presidents and conference realignment. There is no BCS. Sportswriters and computers don't decide the national championship; players do.
Of course, if someone figures out a way to make more money by letting computers and sportswriters pick the basketball champions, watch out. Because in the end, we all know what tradition means to these guys. After all, there is a reason why the NCAA tournament has 65 teams, rather than 64.
Tradition of the bowls. Please.