There are problems with college sports. Recruiting violations, potential paying of athletes, and the BCS standings exemplify some of the controversial topics over which people argue. One of the minor errors of college sports is their early season schedules. Season after season, college football and especially college basketball begin with fairly minimal fanfare.
College football handles the opening pairing better than collegiate basketball. Football usually features a few big games, quenching summer-long thirst for some gridiron action. This year, we were gifted with an opening Thursday night game of the South Carolina Gamecocks verses the North Carolina Tarheels. A few days later, there was the #8 Clemson Tigers welcoming the #5 Georgia Bulldogs in a primetime game that would have drawn national attention all year long. No, not every game is a regional rivalry or a divisional matchup, but they at least featured a few evenly-matched, watchable games.
Basketball on the other hand is harder to feel satisfied. It starts this Friday night and there are very few games that you would call competitive during the opening weekend. There are some early November tournaments that do contain top teams, but they are not guaranteed to meet if they get knocked off in the opening rounds. The best tournament of them all is the Championship Classic featuring four of the top five teams in the nation. But outside of those tournaments, few games compel you to seek them out.
These games are team-building practices for most of the Division 1 schools, used to pad their records so they look much better come tournament time in March. College football does it too, play some team that gives them a “game scenario” before they get to the real games later in the season.
And every year there is talk that these games are worthless, but they’re not. They may not be as important as the games in March, but they mean something for those smaller schools, they provide something to be proud of. I know the effects of this situation firsthand.
My alma mater is the Southern Illinois University of Edwardsville. Back in 2009, SIUE traveled up to take on the University of Illinois in the first game of the year. I was stoked.
At the time SIUE was a Division 2 school, I think; see I’m not quite sure because it had just been announced that we would be moving into Division 1 the next year, so I was too excited about that to care where we came from. Ohio Valley Conference here we come!
Any way, the game wasn’t being covered by ESPN or any television that I knew, but there was a school sponsored site streaming the game. I couldn’t have been the only person to be watching because it took several attempts before the server allowed me access to the stream. It was blurry, choppy, and hardly watchable. For a small instance in time, my dorm room seemed less cold, my one chair became more comfortable, and the emptiness of my mini-fridge didn’t bother me.
Although the screen displayed abstract art made of pixels, I continued to watch. Why you ask? Because here was my school against my team. The Fighting Illini had raised my hopes and broken my heart during the 2005 run to the NCAA Championship. As a fan, you never forget those types of years, especially when those years mark your first foray into following a sports team.
But on the other side of the court was the team that represented my school. The school where I expanded my education, slept, ate, made friends. I even had a class with one of the players that year; it was mystifying seeing the dude on the computer screen.
Eventually, I gave up watching, as I couldn’t see much anyways, and the score had already shown the who was the better side. But it didn’t matter who won to me — I knew who was going to win when I first saw it on the schedule — what did matter was that the two teams I cared about the most were on the same court. It gave me the strangest sense of pride.
People project themselves onto their sports teams. They see the struggle the team is going through as a similar story to their own, but on a level where the odds don’t seem overwhelming and the outcome happens in a few hours. Sports can be viewed as a metaphor for life — hardships become victory, elation become failure.
This is what I had done to both these teams. I found myself somewhere amongst those players, hoping that every one of them were successful. That game carries so little value in the annals of time. If you ranked every sporting event ever by importance, the SIUE at Illinois game would rank at the bottom of the bottom 0.001 percent.
But it mattered to me.
So when these games roll around this weekend, and over the next two months, think of all the people who actually care. When Northern Colorado visits Kansas State, think of the cocky, ignorant, hopeful kid watching, because you may not care, but he does.
Fun side story: Those SIUE players had played an unofficial practice game before they left for the U of I. My friend was part of the team that practiced against the SIUE team. He told me that they were so much better than his team. I then proceeded to play against him in a pickup game at the gym. He completely wiped the floor with me and my team.
Therefore, by the transitive property of basketball, I have determined that I suck at hoops. If my team loses fiercely to a practice team, who loses terribly to the SIUE team, who loses badly to the Illini team, who loses closely against better NCAA teams, who hypothetically couldn’t beat a lesser NBA team, who then gets put down by Lebron James, how amazingly awful does that make me?