It's their loss. Had they been in Lexington on Sunday, they would have enjoyed a Final Four atmosphere during the second week of January. If college football has the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, then the Hyatt Regency lobby adjoining Rupp Arena is home to the World's Largest Tip-off Tipple, a fiesta at which a few thousand rabid partisans start gathering more than three hours before game time. Kentucky issued credentials to 75 media members from around the country for the Kansas game--in addition to those for the local media horde and 23 NBA scouts--and the Lexington Herald-Leader hyped the KU-UK showdown like a prize fight, filling five broadsheet pages on Sunday alone.
Even with the Jayhawks' Simien sidelined, the game featured three of the nation's top seniors in Kansas guards Miles and Keith Langford and Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes. But ultimately it was another graybeard, Jayhawks senior guard Michael Lee, whose three-pointer from the left corner with 30 seconds left was the clincher. In circumstance, if not result, the shot was eerily similar to the one Lee hoisted that was blocked by Warrick to seal Syracuse's 2003 NCAA title-game triumph--a reminder that players in today's game do have a history that resonates.
As Lee nodded his head while running downcourt, it was as if he was answering the question for all of us. Yep, college basketball is alive and well.
Thwarted pro ambitions have proved to be a boon for college basketball. One reason that the quality of play is up this year in the collegiate ranks is experience. In SI's last seven annual preview issues we've listed the starting lineups for our preseason Top 20 teams, noting each player's class and whether he was a returning starter. In 2004-05, with several of last season's top top college players--among them, Mississippi State's senior forward Lawrence Roberts (below)--forgoing the NBA draft, the numbers of upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) and returning starters suddenly spiked to their highest levels in seven years.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]�
As the numbers below reveal, at a time when the Nielsens for many sports are flat or down, the ratings for college basketball have taken a decided jump. (Each rating point equals 1.096 million television households.)