What makes college basketball so great? For a fan like me, I could give you a million different reasons starting with watching all of the future NBA players to watching mid-majors upset the big dogs in the NCAA tournament. There are countless reasons why you should watch college basketball, but there is one reason that sticks out more than any other.
Every professional sports team has one goal going into the season: to win the championship. Some teams can play the rebuilding card as an excuse for why winning the championship isn’t a realistic goal for a specific season (cough cough 76ers), but even in these cases, their goal in a few seasons’ time is to win the championship just like everyone else. There is no lesser goal that can be achieved that would keep their fan base happy for a professional team. Making the playoffs can be considered a minor goal for some teams, but ultimately no franchise is happy if it hasn’t won a title in the last ten years.
College football is slightly different. With the large number of bowl games, teams can have different goals. Some teams are striving for the championship just like the professional teams, some are aiming at a major bowl game, and others are simply just trying to make a bowl game. These expectations vary from team to team but more importantly conference to conference. Right now Marshall is undefeated, but has no shot of making anything more than a standard bowl game due to their weak conference. Even in perfection their ceiling goal of winning a title doesn’t have a chance of coming to fruition. College football offers teams more levels of goals, but there are cases where teams don’t have a fair chance to reach their goals as Marshall demonstrates.
Then there is college basketball. The expectations from fan base to fan base vary unlike any other sport, which is what makes the sport so great. Even within a specific conference expectations can vary at extreme rates. For example in the Missouri Valley, Wichita State is aiming for a national title this year after going undefeated in the regular season last year before bowing out to Kentucky in a well fought Third Round game, but in this same conference Southern Illinois has very little chance of even coming close to an NCAA tournament birth due to their extremely young roster. Fortunately for Southern Illinois that is exactly what college basketball allows teams to do: Dream. Everyone has a chance to make it on the biggest stage as demonstrated by Cinderellas George Mason and Florida Gulf Coast. No one has to settle for a smaller goal, like Marshall’s football team, because everyone is given a fair chance at making the NCAA tournament.
The winner of every conference’s tournament receives an automatic birth to the NCAA tournament. This gives every team the opportunity to make it into the biggest tournament of the sport. The NCAA tournament, and the madness that goes with it, is the most popular post-season tournament in sports today for a reason. Everyone has the same chance of winning the title. Win and you move one step closer to the championship. This format also gives teams a large variety of goals to strive for. For some of the low majors simply making the tournament is a lofty enough goal. For some of the better low major teams winning a game is their goal. For some mid-majors making the Sweet 16 is their goal for the season. Only one team can win the title, but many different fan bases can be happy with their team’s performance at the season’s end.
Last season was a prime example of how fan bases can be happy with their team’s performance even if they didn’t win it all. I watched UW-Milwaukee win the Horizon League tourney with some future UW-Milwaukee students, and they went crazy. They were ecstatic that their team made the tourney. It didn’t matter that they lost to Villanova by 20 in the Second Round because making the tourney was their goal. I also watch the Wisconsin Badgers make the Final Four with some future Badgers, and they went just as crazy as the future Panthers. It didn’t matter that they lost on a near buzzer beater to Kentucky because making the Final Four was the goal for that team. College basketball allows everyone to be happy unlike in any other sport. The season starts tomorrow, and everyone is 0-0 with an equal chance of making the NCAA tournament. Let the fun begin.
Credit all authors of images used in both article and as cover image : Austin Nelson