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Altering start of the season won't solve all of college basketball's problems

Filling big arenas with big teams playing big opponents would be what really helps college basketball. David Blair/Icon Sportswire

When NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt went before the National Association of Basketball Coaches and pitched the idea of starting the college basketball season on one day -- and that day being a Tuesday -- the reaction was immediate and nearly universal.

"Why the heck didn't we think of that?" Notre Dame coach and NABC vice president Mike Brey said.

The simple wrinkle, currently being considered by the NCAA oversight committee, does make a whole lot of sense. For years, college basketball has tipped off its season on a Friday, a night that is already hard to get viewers to tune in. On top of that there is the football problem: The next morning all the attention paid to the start of basketball season has given way to the fanfare of a college football Saturday.

Moving opening day to the Tuesday before the second Friday in November -- to a day in which there are no college or NFL football games to compete against -- gives college hoops some time in the spotlight before Thursday NFL games shift the focus back to football.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a single coach who doesn't like the idea. Several coaches polled by ESPN.com applauded Gavitt's innovative tweak.

Here's the reality, though: Moving opening day alone isn't going to save college basketball from its dangerous trend, one which has shrunk the sport's window to February and March. Still, some are not sure if that one day move will make much of a dent.

"It's probably not good enough,'' Kansas coach Bill Self said. "I don't think there's any way, regardless of what we do, that we can have the impact during the college football season and the last third of the NFL season. I'm not sure there's any way we can do that.''

Football is a beast, with major college football played Monday, Thursday, Saturday and Saturday. The addition of the College Football Playoff has only added to the intrigue. One loss in a college football season could be the difference between a shot at a national title and a lower-level bowl game.

College hoops, on the other hand, continues to fight the stigma that its all-or-nothing month of March negates the importance of its regular season. Last year, Sports Business Journal reported that television viewership for college hoops continued to slide during the regular season.

Certainly that's not just a hoops problem; TV sports audiences are shrinking everywhere. The NFL saw a double-digit drop in viewership this past year and the numbers for this past Summer Olympics were significantly lower than for the 2012 Games in London.

But college hoops presents a unique challenge. More than 300 teams play over six months on essentially every day of the week, before the whole thing gets decided by conference tournaments and the single-game, win-or-go home NCAA tournament.

Conference games, coming after the football circus has folded its tents, can generate some attention.

November and December games are a tougher sell. So the idea to start the season, when the sport can open the season without any football competition, makes sense. The catch is that the games have to be watchable. Executing that part of the equation is anything but simple.

The onus to carry the sport falls decidedly on a small percentage of programs, national name brands that move the needle even with the casual fan. Those names, of course, being Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Michigan State and so forth.

"If the schools everybody likes to play would just schedule more of those big matchup type games -- and many of them already do -- I think from a national perspective, it would be more exciting,'' Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. "I think sometimes too many coaches try to micromanage their schedules. I think if you play better folks, your team is just better.''

Certainly there has been a movement to schedule tougher. Pushed by conference commissioners, consultants and their own athletic directors, plenty of coaches have shied away from the early-season cupcake slate, recognizing that the NCAA tournament selection committee tends to reward teams that play difficult schedules and punish those who do not. Four years ago the SEC made the extraordinary decision to require coaches to send their schedules to former NCAA vice president Greg Shaheen, hired by the league as a consultant, for his approval.

Before the start of last season, commissioner Greg Sankey brought in former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese for more consulting.

In-season cross-league battles -- the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Big 12-SEC Challenge and the Gavitt Games, pitting Big East teams against Big Ten foes -- also have forced coaches to beef up their non-league schedules.

"The days of scheduling games that people would perceive are easier opponents are going away,'' Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. "Everyone has seen the value of a challenging schedule in the committee's eyes and the overall benefit in their team's eyes, too.''

There is smart, tough scheduling and there is sheer madness. Tom Izzo tends to fall toward the latter. Izzo was stunned last week when he read people bemoaning the horrific travel for the Oakland Raiders in the upcoming NFL season, folks bemoaning the hellish slate that will force the Raiders to traverse 16,000 miles in the season.

"We traveled 14,000 in 28 days,'' Izzo said, referring to his Spartans' schedule that included a Nov. 11 game in Hawaii, followed by a single game in New York, two home games, four in the Bahamas and one at Duke on Nov. 29.

Yet even the play anyone, anywhere Izzo worries that the burden is getting too heavy. His Spartans already are committed to the Champions Classic, the 16-team tournament in Oregon to honor Nike founder Phil Knight's 80th birthday, a Big Ten/ACC Challenge Game and a Gavitt Games tipoff.

He, as much as anyone in coaching, appreciates opening the season with a bang and understands the responsibility programs such as his carry. But how much is too much?

"The way these schedules are going, you can't get everything in,'' Izzo said. "I like playing in big games. I think it's better for your team, but I also think I killed my team last year.''

Izzo failed to mention his league obligations. Once, not too long ago, a 20-win season marked the threshold of success. The Big Ten plays 18 league games alone. In 2019, the ACC will go to a 20-game conference schedule.

That leaves little wiggle room and even less appetite to schedule a nonconference slate filled with tough teams.

"I don't know how much more I want to sign up for,'' Brey conceded. "Do I really want to go play Villanova in New Jersey when I've got 20 ACC games?''

The trickle down of mammoth league schedules even affects schools such as Belmont, a successful mid-major that has a hard time getting anyone to agree to a home-and-home. Byrd said he's seen more of his share of teams back out of commitments if something else comes along.

Which leads, full circle, back to Gavitt's suggestion that the league start the season together and earlier.

While everyone agrees it's a good idea and a way to at least grab temporary control of a splintered and continually haphazard sports audience, it's also one small piece in a very convoluted college basketball puzzle.