The dead-November era in college basketball is officially over. Last year gave us the Champions Classic (a four-team rotating tournament featuring Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State) and the season-opening Carrier Classic (the aircraft carrier game attended by President Obama, backgrounded by some of the more captivating images I've ever seen on live TV). This year, the naval ship game became an actual trend, as six other schools announced agreements to play in various docked U.S. Navy warships on or around Veterans' Day.
Now, as ESPN's Andy Katz reported Tuesday morning, Michigan State and Connecticut are set to take a real, regular-season college hoops game where it has never been before -- to an active U.S. Air Force and NATO base in Ramstein, Germany. From Katz's story:
Michigan State and Connecticut have agreed to play this year's college basketball opener at an overseas military base on Friday, Nov. 9, prior to Veterans Day. [...] The game would start late, sometime after 10 p.m. local time in Germany, for an early evening East Coast start time. It would be televised on ESPN.
"I asked my players if they wanted to do it and they were jacked,'' said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. "Has a college team ever played a regular-season game in Europe? I don't think so. It will be cool. We're going to a base in another country. That's pretty cool.''
For years, folks like yours truly have lamented college basketball's popularity, or lack thereof. It's a big sport, to be sure, and nothing captivates casual fans like the NCAA tournament, but the season before March often goes unappreciated by many. Why? A variety of factors: The intersection of college and NFL football during the winter months, the NBA's burgeoning popularity, the lack of dominant upperclassmen stars, you name it.
But one of the most frequently cited reasons -- perhaps the most frequently cited reason -- has been the whimper with which the college basketball season has traditionally begun. The first few weeks of November brought exhibitions and guarantee games and little more. None of it really registered. If the sport couldn't come together to figure out a way to open the season in style -- to give casual viewers and neutral fans some reason to get attached to these teams before February -- surely the sport was deservingly destined to remain an infrequent curiosity.
Clearly, that is no longer a problem. If anything, the sport may be in line for a minor backlash. After all, there are only so many games you can play on naval ships on Veterans' Day before the intended gesture starts to feel more cynical than sincere.
But at least you can't blame college basketball for a lack of effort. Some of its biggest programs (particularly Michigan State, where athletic director Mark Hollis has done as much as anyone to put these things together) are forming some of the most intriguing early-season matchups we've seen in years, with obvious casual-fan appeal baked into the recipe. It won't morph college hoops into the NFL anytime soon, but hey, it can't hurt.