NBA lockout opens door for college hoops

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

A long-lost friend is knocking on your front door, sports fan.

Open up and let him in.

Look who's there – it's college basketball. You remember him – used to be a lot of fun to be around, especially in March. Amid the more serious entities on the sporting cocktail circuit – college and pro football, the NBA, Major League Baseball – he was the life of the party. A weeknight at the gym (or just watching on TV) was always a good time.

Then the old friend got wayward. He became irresponsible, with scandals cropping up constantly. He hung around sketchy characters – greasy third parties who attached themselves to star players. And then even the stars themselves became transient properties, just passing through on their way to the NBA, never sticking around long enough to develop a bond with the fans.

After a while, the product just wasn't very good – not the players, not the teams. As problems kept surfacing, the credibility went the way of boxing. And all those other sports looked like better alternatives.

College basketball hit the skids.

But like the prodigal son and Britney Spears, college hoops is back after some rough years. And not looking too bad.

This is the chance to reacquaint with your old friend, sports fan. What else are you going to do, watch the NBA?

That league appears intent on alienating its fan base with a prolonged lockout that could eradicate the entire season. Already, 26 percent of the games have been canceled. The players union and ownership are at the breaking point. So is the faith of the customers.

You won't see LeBron and Kobe and Dirk on Friday nights anytime soon – maybe not until next fall. So if you love hoops, what's the alternative?

Let in your old friend.

The college game still has tremendous problems – cheating, hypocrisy and a corrosive cult-of-the-coach mentality among them. But this 2011-12 season is college hoops' big chance to regain its seat at American sports' main table.

The opportunity is there, and the product should be good enough to take advantage of that opportunity.

The talent on the floor – individually and from a team perspective – is as good as it's been since 2008 at least.

When Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Terrence Jones of Kentucky all said no to the NBA draft and came back to school, the game got a jolt of star power. Casual fans who like watching pro-level talent perform have something to tune into.

[Related: Harrison Barnes happy he returned to UNC]

The return of those players helped guarantee that the Tar Heels, Buckeyes and Wildcats all would be better than they were last year. In fact, all three programs are probably better than any team was last year.

Let's face it: if the talent level weren't massively down in 2010-11, we wouldn't have had both Virginia Commonwealth and Butler in the Final Four. They were great stories, not great teams. We wouldn't have had the ninth-place team in the Big East (Connecticut) winning the national title while scoring 109 points in two games – the lowest Final Four total for the national champion since 1946.

When that fetid Final Four ended with Jim Calhoun – facing personal NCAA sanctions for violations within his program – holding up the national championship trophy after a weekend of horrible hoops, college basketball might have reached its nadir.

Now the game is climbing back up.

There already have been compelling storylines: the Carrier Classic began as a gimmick and ended as a huge success, bringing together President Barack Obama, thousands of servicemen and women and two high-profile programs for a visually stunning game on an aircraft carrier. The event provided a temporary and welcome escape from the Penn State story that was casting a pall over all of college athletics.

Tuesday night, the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden got Mike Krzyzewski breaking Bob Knight's all-time men's Division I victories record with Knight in the house, a harmonic convergence of circumstances that made for great TV.

[Related: Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski adapts to become the best | Buy Duke gear]

And there is more to come.

Next week the Maui Invitational features its usual excellent field, headlined by Duke and Memphis. Not even the unexpected early implosion of UCLA or the expected dip from Kansas can undercut this tourney.

Then there are two huge December non-conference games in Lexington: North Carolina at Kentucky on Dec. 3 will likely be a matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2, and also a matchup of two blueblood programs that like to make claims to being the greatest in the history of the sport. And on New Year's Eve we get the ultimate grudge match: Louisville at Kentucky.

The Heels-'Cats game will feature about eight first-round NBA draft picks. You won't see more talent in one place all season.

And you won't see more bad blood in one place all season than Kentucky-Louisville. This is the Auburn-Alabama of college hoops. It is all-consuming and all-year-round in a bedrock basketball state that has no pro sports. Don't give me Duke-North Carolina; this is the most passionate rivalry in the game.

It has never been more contentious between the head coaches than it is now. Rick Pitino and John Calipari hate each other, pure and simple. Don't let either tell you otherwise. Calipari took shots at Louisville before the season, and Pitino responded in kind. Carve out space on your Dec. 31 party planner for this game.

Then the real fun begins in January with conference play. By February, football finally leaves the stage – and if the NBA remains locked out, college basketball will own the calendar.

But don't keep your old friend standing on the doorstep until then. Let him in now and get reacquainted.

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