Television has certainly noticed the difference. At a time when the Nielsens for many major sports are declining or flat, college hoops ratings are up 12% on CBS (compared with this time last season), 10% on ESPN and 25% on ESPN2 (chart, page 57). "In our world double-digit growth is more than significant. That's a major change from one season to the next," says Burke Magnus, who has coordinated ESPN's college basketball programming for the past five years. The ratings are up despite a proliferation of games: The ESPN family plans to televise 303 men's games this season, including 18 that have been added on Wednesday nights in place of locked-out NHL games. And that doesn't take into account the 510 additional games available on ESPN's Full Court satellite and digital-cable packages for the most addled of hoopheads.
Meanwhile, thanks to prodding from the TV networks and the NCAA tournament committee's increased focus on strength of schedule, coaches now have more incentive than ever to arrange the kind of marquee intersectional matchups that fans want to see. Back in the 1980s John Thompson's Georgetown teams would load up on cupcakes like St. Leo and Hawaii-Hilo. Now even notorious Syracuse fraidy cat Jim Boeheim is willing to take on Oklahoma State and risk an early-season loss. (The Orange fell to the Cowboys 74-60 on Dec. 7.) "I'm finding more teams are willing to play anybody," says Mike Aresco, the senior vice president for programming at CBS Sports. "We've never had so many good nonconference games, like Kansas-Kentucky and Connecticut-- North Carolina [on Feb. 13], scheduled in January and February."
Three of the most electrifying games this season have been No. 16 Gonzaga's takedowns of No. 8 Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and No. 14 Washington, prime contenders, respectively, for the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 titles. Such matchups might not have happened in years past. "As a coach you control a certain number of games, so you'd better do something to show you'll schedule the way the committee wants," says Zags coach Mark Few. "In the end you'll be rewarded, either by getting into the tournament or drawing a high seed." Even better, the tournament committee's recent changes to the Ratings Percentage Index--which will reward teams more for road wins than for home wins--should only increase the willingness of powerhouses to venture into the lairs of other heavyweights, as Georgia Tech did on New Year's Day when it dropped a 70-68 overtime thriller at Kansas.
You say the regular season is meaningless? No league will be watched more closely than the ACC, which has at least four serious national title contenders-- North Carolina, Wake Forest, No. 5 Duke and Georgia Tech--and may be the best league in college basketball since the Big East muscled three teams into the 1985 Final Four. "I don't know if I've ever seen one conference have as many dominant teams as this one does," says Williams, who's been a coach in the college ranks for 27 years. This week alone, ACC fans can watch those four Top 10 teams in a 72-hour span, all without leaving the state of North Carolina. As street-legal drugs go, nothing could be finer.
That frisson of energy is coursing through the sport, not least because so many teams could raise the championship trophy in St. Louis on April 4. Last season UConn was the consensus choice as preseason No. 1, and sure enough the Huskies shook off a midseason slump, raced through the NCAA tournament and won the title game going away. Before this season there was no obvious favorite, and nine teams have received first-place votes in the AP poll. Illinois may be the first among equals these days, having flayed Gonzaga, Wake Forest and No. 18 Cincinnati by an average of 19 points. But ask observers who'll rule in the end, and you'll hear as many questions as answers.
Could it be North Carolina, SI's preseason pick, which at week's end had run off 13 straight wins (including last Saturday's 109-75 demolition of then No. 21 Maryland) after a season-opening loss at Santa Clara? Or perhaps Kansas, which seems primed to peak in March after Simien returns from thumb surgery? Maybe it's a senior-stuffed team like Oklahoma State or a rapidly maturing young outfit like Kentucky or Texas. Who knows? It may even be a sleeper as far afield as Gonzaga (owner of the nation's most impressive victims list but an upset loser to West Coast Conference rival St. Mary's on Saturday) or 13-0 Boston College, which slayed UConn in Hartford last week and leaped to No. 13 in the rankings. New contenders pop up all the time: Last week, upsets dinged nine members of the Top 25.
"Usually at this point you can pick out a group and say they look like your Final Four teams, but I can't do that this season," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, whose 10-2 49ers could spring a March surprise. Adds N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler, a former chair of the tournament committee, "Where last year you may have had 20 teams that could have gone to the final eight, this year you might have 40. It's a higher-quality kind of parity, and that's good for college basketball."
The game still has issues, of course. Will the exodus of college players resume if there's a down cycle in foreign or high school talent? (Perhaps, and maybe as soon as the 2005 draft.) How can college hoops turn out as many pros as the European clubs, which have no limits on the hours they spend on a youngster's roundball education? (One solution: by modifying the NCAA rules on practice time to allow more interaction between coaches and players.) For that matter, is there any way the NBA Players' Association would agree to a plan limiting or preventing early entries? (Not likely, even if for every LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard there are five Ndudi Ebis, DeSagana Diops and Kwame Browns.)
But here's the good news: The guardians of the game appear serious about tackling the problems that have plagued it. Last month NCAA president Myles Brand joined Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson to announce the formation of the College Basketball Partnership, a new 27-member panel of coaches, administrators and TV executives--and soon, one hopes, players--that will address all issues related to the sport. "We're a group planning for the future of the game," declared Brand, who has won the trust of skeptical coaches by (imagine this) listening to their views. Detailed proposals are still to come, but if the CBP can enact genuine reform, perhaps in concert with the NBA and its players, then the prospects for college basketball will be even brighter.
Already the sport has come a long way since 2003, when Baylor's Carlton Dotson was charged with murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy ( Dotson was later ruled incompetent for trial) and college coaches convened an emergency ethics summit after scandals at St. Bonaventure, Georgia and Fresno State. Only a na�f would believe that college hoops was rid of its difficulties, but for now it has ceded the damning headlines to meltdowns in other sports. "Some of the negative things in the NBA, from the Kobe case to the fight in Detroit, have turned people off," says Illinois's Weber, who points out that the three players who most seriously escalated the conflict at The Palace of Auburn Hills--the Indiana Pacers' Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal--spent a total of two years in college among them.