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Appetite grows, stars align for fantastic college hoops season

by | CBSSports.com Senior College Basketball Blogger
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The montage of March -- the ball is up, the clock ticks down, someone has a shining moment. (Getty Images)  
The montage of March -- the ball is up, the clock ticks down, someone has a shining moment. (Getty Images)  

After what was undeniably the most incredible night of baseball I've ever seen (are you over it yet? Are you believing it? I'm neither), I can confidently and aggressively say: Get me to the start of the college basketball season as soon as possible.

That ridiculous torrent of unlikely events that gushed out of your TV from St. Petersburg, Atlanta and Baltimore freakishly resembled -- in a metamorphosed way -- the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. Wasn't it great? So familiar it made you tingle? I'm so ready for a new season of college hoops that tingle irritated my five-month-dormant itch. The bug has awoken and begun to crawl within. The hunger has become a ravening.

Baseball has always done that to me, though. The postseason is a comforting thing; it's almost muscle memory, the way its arrival renews a seasonal clock inside of me. It reminds me with each passing night that the sport I love is ever so closer to coming back. And October hardball's not so hard on the eyes, either. There are millions of worse ways to pass the time.

We still have five weeks to mill until college basketball begins, but I'm bringing this up now not just because last night's regular-season finale of baseball spurred a yearning. No, the truly fortuitous aspect of the 2011-12 season is its unique existence, and I'm fully acknowledging that privilege already.

There will be little, or no, NBA to compete with. Thank you, David Stern God.

Plenty of people cross over between the two sports, but the collective fan bases of the NBA and college basketball have always been at odds to a certain extent. It's a much colder acknowledgment of existence than what pro and college football fans have. There's a rivalry of styles, an argument of aesthetics. This year, college hoops heads stand a good chance of watching their sport steal most of the attention on the hardwood.

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The opportunity is rare, and we should bask in it for as long as the NBA owners and players care to nickel and dime and filibuster each other into next year. The way I see it, the NBA lockout is going to be the best thing to happen to college basketball since Indiana beat Duke in the 2002 Sweet 16. And oh what a night that was.

With all the what-ifs of a delayed start to the NBA season, we haven't seen a lot of discussion about what it means for college. It's going to be great, I tell you. Absolutely, undoubtedly great. Truth is, there isn't a better season for this to happen to NCAA basketball than 2011-12.

The prospect of a clipped -- or altogether aborted -- NBA campaign has been pondered over, worried about and speculated on amongst writers and fans for far too ... short a time, if you ask me. My apologies to NBA devotees, but your sport's misery is mine's benefit. We will absolutely see an uptick in interest if NBA fans have no LeBron James to tune into and hate by mid-November. As an unrelenting college basketball honk, I'm rooting for a full-on halt to the NBA season. Give me one year of this, and I'll never complain about the abundance of iso sets at the pro level again.

I get my hopes up now over a shortened or eliminated NBA season because Ken Berger reported the dour nature of the latest labor talks Wednesday, and judging by the reaction from the men in charge it doesn't look like anything positive is cresting with the two sides, who make a fight between me and an ex-girlfriend look like a marriage reception.

If you're a fan of the young'uns, I ask you: Have you ever been this excited for a season? The offseason has always felt long (that's because it is, and I love it; I'm starving for the sport by the time the season arrives in November), but this one has been particularly excruciating with all the conference realignment clogging up the spirit of the game and the sport. Football dictates the shifts, but basketball feels the effects all the same.

So let's have this ornery lockout drag on through 2012, shall we? Give this year, the perfect year, all to college hoops. Let's have a regular season where American basketball is mandated to prop its spotlight on the NBA stars of tomorrow. They deserve it. The sport deserves it. A throwback year, where Kentucky and North Carolina -- two of the four greatest programs in the sport's history -- will likely stare each other down all season atop the polls. Those two teams probably have 10 future NBA players, combined. When they meet on Dec. 3 in Lexington, Ky., that will effectively be the first pro game of the season.

You're never going to convert the diehard NBA guys and gals, obviously, but there's a crowd of basketball fans that will have no choice but to turn to college basketball to get its roundball fix. There was a time when college basketball really had a grip on the American sports landscape. It has never dominated it, not outside of March, but for a majority of the '80s and'90s, this country cared a lot about college hoops from December through the spring. Then too many players left early for the NBA, the sport became too much of a diluted television product, and all the talented big men vanished from the game.

I still love college basketball with all my heart, but it's nothing compared to what it was 20 years ago in its mainstream appeal. This season presents a confluence of events inside and outside the sport that can truly make it a hallmark year. After plenty of defections from last year's draft, a truckload of talent is back. We have more identifiable players and many traditional programs in the chase for top-tier seeding in the bracket.

At least that's what we expect. The anticipation for this season is growing, and when it gets here, we're likely to find a cluster of teams and gaggle of players combining to create the most compelling year of college basketball we've seen in a long time. Eliminate the NBA season, and college hoops gets an unintentional assist from big brother, the kind of look the sport has needed for a long time.

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