"A long December and there's reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last ..." -- Adam Duritz, Counting Crows, "Long December"
Here in Chapel Hill, there are lots of reasons to believe exactly that. Many of the locals hope that by March 2009, this year's Final Four loss to Kansas will be nothing but a faded memory as the "Southern Part of Heaven" celebrates its sixth championship title.
UNC is undefeated and the unanimous No. 1 team in the nation (except on B/R of course, where a voter believes that Connecticut, with their 4-point win over Buffalo, should clearly be ranked higher). They are likely to keep that title at least well into January, when ACC play finally starts.
So, what could I possibly complain about?
I am not a fan of the glorified practice that constitutes most of the month of December and half of January for the vast majority of major-conference and some mid-major college basketball teams. Sure, most of them might throw in one semi-decent opponent during that stretch, but most will face the likes of the Citadel, Duquesne, and UC-Santa Barbara.
The Tar Heels themselves are plenty guilty of this scheduling pattern; their next opponents are Evansville, at Valparaiso, Rutgers, at Nevada, and don't forget College of Charleston on January 7th, after opening ACC play Jan. 4th at home against Boston College.
What exactly is the excuse? Well, there isn't one. We often hear that the kids are "on break" and that these are "warm-up games" for the "grueling" conference play. (I might add that only a select few conferences can call their games against each other "grueling." Yes, I'm talking to you, Memphis, UCLA, and Xavier, among others.)
The fact is that programs want to rack up wins. They don't have to be quality wins; just wins will do. That's how you have the Clemson Tigers start out two seasons ago at 17-0 and still not make the NCAA tournament.
The fact is that pollsters, often even more uninformed than their football counterparts (mostly due to the larger volume of games), sometimes skip right to the wins and losses column when filling out their ballot. (But the fact is also that coaches are smart enough to know this and feel the need to play along, especially if they believe they will get enough quality wins in their conference.)
The fact is that no one wants to lose a game in late December, when everyone else is playing far weaker opponents and racking up easy wins. How far will Tennessee fall after a humbling loss to Temple? How far will Gonzaga tumble after the defeat to Arizona?
At least Louisville took its loss (to Western Kentucky) during the time of the preseason tournaments, when there was still some decent basketball being played. Hence, they miraculously keep a No. 9 ranking in the most recent poll and will probably rise to No. 8 today.
The fact is that these games do not necessarily prepare a team for their "grueling" conference schedule. The 2006-07 Clemson team is a perfect example. In fact, it can be argued that cruising against inferior opponents will weaken a team when it finds itself matched up against comparable competition.
The fact is THAT IS WHAT PRACTICE IS FOR. These glorified scrimmages make for poor basketball and potential negative habit-forming, especially in young players who get away with poor decision-making and form against lesser opponents. Good coaching can help negate such effects, but to even risk this is dangerous.
UNC may be a rare example, but their first team playing against their second team (in practice) is far more competitive than heading to Valparaiso for a blowout.
The fact is that the fans also lose in these 3-4 weeks of basketball doldrums. So, I suggest to the teams that insist on scheduling not just weaker, but absolutely horrific competition, do the following: either schedule better teams or schedule no one and just practice.
Do us all a favor; hearing Dick Vitale sound poetic as Duke waxes Loyola (MD) or UNC-Asheville is downright painful. Although, who knows, maybe the Loyola coach will put four players on Brian Zoubek and they will all stand in the corner, so some records are broken.
Finally, the fact is I might as well be asking Jim Delany to approve a BCS 8-team playoff while I'm at it, because this policy is not changing any time soon. Wake me up after the first week of January. Hopefully, the egg nog will have worn off by then.
For those of you interested in some statistics behind the forgettable Decembers and early Januaries, I've broken down a few schedules for you. North Carolina's has already been discussed, but what about the rest of the top 25?
Let's take a look at the current AP Top 25 (prior to the Dec. 15th release) to see who benefits the most from scheduling patsies in the December not to Remember:
PITTSBURGH (10-0, No. 2) -- Guess how many ranked teams the Panthers have played? None. Their best competition? Throw a dart. You can choose between Belmont, Texas Tech, and Washington State. Good way to keep that top-5 ranking, though. Pitt might be a little nervous that they scheduled Florida State on December 21st. The Seminoles were supposed to be ACC cellar-dwellers but have actually upset a then-ranked Florida team already. Maybe the Panthers meant to schedule Florida Atlantic?
OKLAHOMA (10-0, No. 5) -- Oklahoma actually takes more than a full month "off." After their one-point win over USC (not exactly a Pac-10 powerhouse this year), they'll play the likes of Tulsa, Maine, Utah, VCU, Rice, Arkansas, Coppin State and MD Eastern Shore. They should be 17-0 when they face Texas (finally) on Jan. 12th, 39 days after the win against USC.
LOUISVILLE (6-1, No. 9) -- Louisville, like Pittsburgh, has played exactly zero ranked opponents and has even lost to one of them, Western Kentucky. Surprise, surprise. They won't be playing any other ranked opponents until Jan. 10th at No. 15 Villanova (if Villanova is still ranked). Hey, if you can play the Lamars and Indiana States of the world (and lose while doing it), and continue to be ranked in the Top 10, why not keep scheduling the patsies? Normally, that January game against Kentucky might be meaningful outside the state of Kentucky, but not this year.
WAKE FOREST (9-0, No. 11) -- The Demon Deacons are not quite as bad as the rest. Though they have faced no ranked teams, they do have wins over UTEP and Baylor. Though they've scheduled the usual patsies for December, we will find out more about Wake when they travel to BYU on Jan. 3rd before hosting No. 1 North Carolina on Jan. 11th.
UCLA (6-2, No. 16) -- Hey, one loss to a ranked team is enough! After losing to No. 6 Texas (they also lost to unranked Michigan), UCLA won't have to worry about that for a while. The schedule called for a good dose of CSU Northridge, DePaul, Loyola Marymount, Mercer, Wyoming and Louisiana Tech (all at home, no less) before starting off their Pac-10 schedule with weaklings Oregon and Oregon State. Zero quality wins and a No. 16 ranking? Why would they schedule any other way?
ARIZONA STATE (8-1, No. 21) -- As weak as the Pac-10 appears to be this year, Arizona State couldn't afford to lose to the only decent opponent they've played this year, unranked Baylor. Unless BYU is ranked before the game tomorrow night, the Sun Devils don't face another currently ranked opponent until Jan. 17th when they travel to UCLA. In fact, the two games against UCLA are the only games the Sun Devils have on their schedule against currently ranked opponents. Good luck impressing the Selection Committee with games against Mississippi Valley State, Pepperdine, Jackson State, IUPUI, etc.
Keep in mind that these are only the worst offenders. Nearly every major-conference school has the end of December set aside for the meekest of the meek. I might have inlcuded Kansas, except that they will certainly no longer be ranked after Saturday's loss to Massachussetts.
I left off the teams that either a) scheduled some decent games prior to the unofficial "Winter Break," or b) mixed in quality opponents with weaker ones during this time (e.g., Gonzaga).
Have a great December, basketball fans. Just remember, it's only three months until March.