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Doing it better

College hoops provides what college football doesn't: a clean conclusion

Posted: Monday December 6, 2004 7:15PM; Updated: Tuesday December 7, 2004 11:15AM
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Bryce Drew
College football is denying itself the spectacle of the Cinderella story, like Valparaiso's Bryce Drew in 1998.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In preparing for my duties as host of a college football show on College Sports Television this fall, I've had that sport on my brain this season more than ever before. Thus, as I was watching the Kentucky-North Carolina basketball game on Saturday, a question popped into my head: Would college basketball be better off if the loser of that game were eliminated from contention for the national championship?

That would probably have been the result if two top-10 football teams played each other early in the regular season. On one hand, those stakes would have stirred up infinitely more interest in the game. On the other hand, once the Wildcats lost to the Tar Heels, what would the lovable legions in Lexington, Ky., have to look forward to the rest of the season?

Despite my newfound appreciation for college football, you won't be surprised to hear where I come down on this question: College hoops does it better.

College football fans will tell you their sport doesn't need a playoff because their regular season is the playoff. There is certainly much virtue in this argument. When Texas played Oklahoma and Cal played USC on Oct. 9, it felt like a Final Four -- and it turned out to be just that. But while the lack of a playoff raises the significance in a small handful of regular-season games, it likewise reduces all the others to meaningless shlock.

That's especially true for the annual Bowl blitz that begins this month. Why should anybody care who wins the non-championship BCS games -- the Rose, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls -- not to mention the 24 other Bowl games? People use the same logic to diss college basketball's conference tournaments, but at least they don't end the season like the Bowls do.

Besides, if college football ever did go to a playoff, it wouldn't include more than eight teams, and might only include four. That is still a very small, very exclusive club. As big as the Michigan-Ohio State game was this season, can you imagine if a spot in a playoff were at stake instead of just a spot in the Rose Bowl? That would enhance, not diminish, the regular season.

Football fans will also boast that unlike hoops, the best teams in their sport play for the championship every year. Set aside the obvious answer that the folks in Auburn would give here (as well those at USC last year). Who's to say who the two best teams really are? For all we know, Utah is the best football team in the country. But the Utes won't have the chance to prove it because they're playing lowly Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. (The BCS didn't even have the sense to match up Utah against Auburn.) Or maybe Louisville, whose only loss was by a late field goal at Miami on Oct. 14, is the best team in the country. You might think Boise State, which went undefeated but had to squeak out a few wins, would get obliterated by Oklahoma, but you can't know for sure unless they play each other. But they won't.

Since college basketball polls don't officially determine anything, you also won't find a hoops coach running up the score just to impress those voters. That should be reason enough to junk the football system.

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Finally, by preventing so much of the country from having a chance to play for a championship, college football is denying itself the one spectacle that captures the public's imagination like no other: the Cinderella story. If you saw Valparaiso's Bryce Drew sink that last-second shot to give his team a victory in the NCAA tournament, you probably forget what year it took place (1998), what round it came in (first) and who Valpo beat (Mississippi). But you remember the play -- just like you remember the teams from N.C. State and Villanova that won the NCAA tournament in 1983 and '85, respectively, more than you remember the titans who won after being favored all along.

The bottom line is, only a true college basketball fan would have a huge interest in who won in Chapel Hill last weekend, just like only a true college football fan would care whether Miami or Florida wins the Peach Bowl later this month. But the NCAA tournament -- admittedly helped by the rampant gambling that goes with it -- gives our sport a chance to draw in the casual fan for three weeks as opposed to one night. It also lets college hoops produce what college football cannot: a clean conclusion. No controversies, no hand-wringing, just a single, undisputed national champion.

With that, I rest my case.

This Weekends Picks

It was by the hair of my chinny chin chin that I edged Derrick Braxton of Overland Park, Kans., last week to start out 7-3, compared to Derrick's 6-4 record. That margin came thanks to Alabama's triple-overtime win over Charlotte and Michigan's one-point triumph over Notre Dame. Otherwise, Derrick correctly picked Wisconsin to beat Rutgers and Temple to beat Villanova. (Unlike him, however, I had Texas beating Seton Hall.)

See if you can close the gap by sending in scores for the following 10 games, which I'll preview in my column on Friday. Give me a few sentences explaining your choice on the featured game. And don't forget your full name, your hometown, and if you want to have a better chance of getting chosen, your favorite Radiators song.

Featured game:

Louisville at Florida

Other games:

Iowa State at Iowa

Oregon at Illinois

Indiana at Kentucky

Stanford at Michigan State

DePaul at Notre Dame

Utah at Arizona

Temple at Alabama

Wisconsin at Marquette

Pepperdine at UCLA

Other Hoop Thoughts

• I was disappointed to hear Indiana fans heckling North Carolina's Sean May with unkind cheers like "Sean May sucks." They should have shown more class. That said, they obviously got into May's head because he was out of sorts the entire night.

• UConn forward Charlie Villanueva has been in an odd funk so far. Jim Calhoun says Villanueva's lacking confidence, which is surprising considering how skilled he is. He had all of five points in 11 minutes against Indiana on Saturday.

• Illinois' Roger Powell and Wisconsin's Alando Tucker are playing some great basketball, but they better be careful or they'll play their way right off my All-Glue team.

• Maryland is a terrific defensive team, but if the Terps don't find more ways to score -- especially from the foul line -- they'll never be great. I'd love to see Nik Caner-Medley emerge as the go-to scorer, but I'm not sure that will ever happen.

• The best sign for Michigan was sophomore center Courtney Sims getting aggressive on offense in the win over Notre Dame. He's been playing a little too soft for my taste.

• I'm not saying Georgia Tech will make it all the way to the championship game again, but the Yellow Jackets are definitely better this season than they were last year. Remember, Will Bynum didn't become eligible last season until late December. (He had transferred from Arizona mid-semester the previous year.) And if you want to argue that Jarrett Jack is the best point guard in the ACC (including Chris Paul), I'm not going to put up a fight.

• This week's player who's better than you think: Washington junior forward Bobby Jones.

• I'm not sure what was worse for Michigan State last weekend, losing to a very good George Washington team or almost losing to a pretty bad George Mason team. Among the Spartans' problems right now is they're not getting any scoring off their defense.

• I knew Oregon freshman Malik Hairston was a great athlete and a natural scorer, but I had no idea he was this good of a passer.

• Three really good guards with terrible shooting form: Ronnie Brewer, Arkansas; Raymond Felton, North Carolina; and Mustafa Shakur, Arizona. Elbows under the ball, boys!

• For a team trying to rid itself of an image for playing soft, that was a pretty bad loss Florida took at home last Saturday to Miami, which had already lost to South Carolina State and a rebuilding Xavier team.

• Oklahoma State beat Washington State 81-29 over the weekend. Just wanted to make sure y'all knew.

• I know we'd all love to see Gene Keady go out on a good note, but his team just isn't good.

• It's ironic Jim Saia is the new interim coach at USC considering his ex-boss at UCLA, Steve Lavin, also ascended to the main chair because the head coach was let go around this time (though nobody accused Henry Bibby of fudging an expense report like Jim Harrick did). Saia is a bright, industrious guy who could very well create a spark there, but the smart money would have Pepperdine coach Paul Westphal, a USC alum, taking over at season's end.

• With Creighton, Bradley and Southern Illinois jockeying for position at the top, the Missouri Valley Conference is going to be a strong mid-major league this season.

Sean Singletary wasn't on anyone's freshman-to-watch lists to start the season (including mine), but the Virginia point guard is the real thing. He had 25 points, seven rebounds and two assists Friday night in the Cavaliers' win over Auburn.

• I believe Ben Howland will turn UCLA into a winner, but that program is at least two years away.

• Alabama forward Kennedy Winston put up eye-popping numbers in the Crimson Tide's triple-overtime win at Charlotte Saturday, but for me the most impressive number was not his 33 points or 10 rebounds. It was his 53 minutes of playing time. That's what I call strong legs.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis covers college basketball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Davis' first book, Equinunk, Tell Your Story: My Return to Summer Camp, is available through Chandler House Press.

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