College basketball season officially begins today, the first day the NCAA allows for practices. This milestone sneaks in below the football radar and amid the din from NBA media days — a fitting start for an era in which the sport’s power brokers have increasingly allowed it to be overshadowed.
College basketball’s opening used to have a nice symmetry with the game’s high-profile conclusion. March Madness marked the culmination of a campaign that tipped off at Midnight Madness.
Midnight Madness once ushered the basketball season in with some fanfare. Named for the NCAA’s official 12 a.m. designation for the start of practice, Midnight Madness functioned less as a practice and more as a pep rally to generate excitement.
I’m somewhat remiss to refer to Midnight Madness in the past tense; programs across the country still hold events each autumn. Like other milestones on the college basketball calendar before March, however, the significance of Midnight Madness has been greater devalued in recent years.
ESPN spotlighted midnight showcases from East Coast to West in a Friday night marathon each October during my childhood. The Worldwide Leader popped into the various venerable venues of college basketball lore to broadcast live action: dunk contests, 3-point shootouts, scrimmages. The Midnight Madness marathon also served as a preview magazine of sorts, highlighting players to watch and their stories for the coming season.
As a young hoophead with no school the next day, it was my favorite Friday night tradition on cable TV — more so, even, than Joe Bob Briggs’ MonsterVision on TNT. I moved onto college in the 2000s, and though the event was no longer broadcast with the same gravity, my alma mater’s arena filled for that one hour sneak-preview of the basketball season.
Like much of its college basketball coverage, ESPN dramatically deemphasized the importance of Midnight Madness in the 2000s, commensurate with its gaining NBA broadcast rights. The Worldwide Leader doesn’t shoulder all the blame, however. As the start of each regular season crept up from Thanksgiving weekend to Veterans Day, and this year will tip even earlier, the start date for practices needed to adjust accordingly.
Likewise, the transition from an official Saturday start date to midweek rendered the party atmosphere vital to the old Midnight Madness a bad fit.
Midnight Madness of the current era comes off more contrived — probably because most teams hold theirs almost a full month into practices.The events are only treated like big deals outside of the campuses where they’re held when professional homer Kentucky fan Drake introduces the team.