|Kentucky is expected to be hosting seven big recruits, including the top-rated 2012 prospect. (Getty Images)|
For starters, we need to kill off the name.
What began as a really innovative concept -- by Maryland coach Lefty Driesell in 1971 -- to get fans excited for basketball season, Midnight Madness is no longer that: madness at midnight.
In 2011, there will be exactly one fan base celebrating its basketball team's upcoming season as a group when the clock hands align and point to the stars: Texas A&M. And even then, they won't really be rallying for hoops. The basketball team is a throw-in to the Midnight Yell, a tradition in Aggie football. The idea, execution and ethos behind Midnight Madness has evolved over the years, but it's real fundamental change came when the NCAA eased up on the litigiousness of the rule in 2005. Teams are now allowed to have their first practice at 7 p.m. on the closest Friday to Oct. 15, the official start of the men's and women's basketball seasons.
The accompanying names of these things still get me. Red Sea Madness (Fairfield), First Night (Connecticut), Countdown to Craziness (Duke), Kraziness in the Kennel (Gonzaga) and, of course, the best one by a wide margin: The Jam with Ham at Seminole Madness (Florida State). There is still room for change in some, though. "Late Night in the Phog" isn't really all that late. It ends at 9:30 p.m., which is about the time most college students toss on their best worst cologne and prepare for the night ahead.
Point is, a lot of the character, charm, excitability and outright definition about this event have long since vanished. What Midnight Madness used to be isn't what it is today. Now it's more like Dinnertime Delirium, and so it has become family-friendly, which is always good for the older and younger portions of the fan base.
It's safer that way, too. Fewer fans and recruits on the road well into the early morning means erring on the side of common sense, not to mention safety. Plus, the communal benefit that comes from these kick-offs -- many schools implore all those who walk through the doors bring non-perishable food items to donate to food shelters -- outweighs not having them at all. Charitable actions on behalf of coaches and administrators also occur. Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury will donate $5,000 to a student's books and tuition Friday night in Starkville.
But the ideals behind how and why schools host Midnight Madness is becoming more and more fractured. The schools that do it on the lower level still do it for fans and do it to drum up interest in their programs, particularly in years where it's expected the team will make the NCAA tournament. And if hopes aren't high? Yeah, no mid-October party happening in those college towns. More than half of BCS schools will not have a Midnight Madness event this year.
"I think Midnight Madness' time has passed, for the most part," Xavier head coach Chris Mack said.
Mack speaks in the purest terms of the phrase, as Xavier does hold an event to inaugurate its season, but it's more of a pure practice that Musketeers fans can sit in and watch. There are no video displays, pep band beats or half-court-shot contests. Just a real practice and scrimmage that allows fans to see the early signs of what Xavier basketball can and will be in the upcoming season. Butler and VCU, Final Four participants from last year, will also not open their doors for fans this Friday. And they haven't participated in the trend in the past, either.
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The schools that do it big, though,really do it really big. And they do it big to snare the biggest and best recruits, of course. For the top 1 percent, college basketball's opening weekend has become about pandering to and impressing every recruit that's allowed on your campus. At the biggest and best schools, make no mistake, Midnight Madness long ago stopped truly being about wowing the fans and became about wooing the recruits.
"It's one of the strongest connections to the recruiting process," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "Nine of our guys have been at a Hoosier Hysteria, whether it was their senior or junior year, whether they committed or not committed. It's not the biggest [factor] but it's a big part."
And even the big boys, like Indiana, that can get big recruits in are now acquiescing to the official start of the season and opting to host their Midnight Madness festivities after the likes of Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and North Carolina go through the motions.
"There's no program that has it at the level Kentucky has," Crean said. "For us, it wasn't planned out like, 'Hey, let's not compete.' It's really turned out, especially for young players, that they can do both. If they want to be at Louisville, they can be there. If they want to be at Kentucky, be at Kentucky. But then they can come here."
Crean thinks the current players get the most enjoyment out of the night, but added Hoosier Hysteria serves both fans and the recruits.
"I think it's always been about having opportunities to have recruits to see you at your best," he said. "If it's exciting for recruits, it's going to be exciting for fans."
It's not easy, though. In fact, most coaches really stress about which recruits they can get to campus. Plenty will tell you off-record how much of a pain it is. Crean, who this week self-reported a secondary recruiting violation, offered this quote up about how tedious the process of hosting recruits can be.
"We like to have people sitting in the same area. You have to be careful, because there's so many rules and regulations," he said. "There are security people that stand near our recruiting section, and compliance is around, so we don't commit any secondary violation by accident."
Yes, it's gotten so huge that it's problematic. Memphis coach Josh Pastner told me, "I expect to get a lot of unofficials," meaning unofficial visits, meaning sophomores or juniors who pay their way to get to campus and watch the show. It's an awkward situation for many coaches. Pastner's in a good spot, though -- Memphis has a lot of local hoops talent, so those kids aren't really in a bind to show up to the FedEx Forum.
Other schools that host unofficials? Coaches need to turn their heads, lest they find out how these 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds made their way onto school grounds. (Official visits are paid for by the school and happen during a recruit's senior season.)
With ESPNU's Friday night telecast, the spectacle of Midnight Madness at a select few has only been enhanced, even mythicized in a way. Memphis is putting the spectacle on local TV, and the biggest basketball programs are taking advantage as best they can. Hip-hop star Rick Ross, who is opening a Wingstop restaurant in Memphis earlier in the day, will perform for Tigers recruits (and fans, who happen to also be in the building).
"Our madness, what we do is obviously for the fans, but we're also any time you're having a game or a so-called event like this, you want recruits to be there because they're able to see your product, the atmosphere and energy," Pastner said. "It's a wonderful thing and it's kind of a mutual thing."
Kentucky's known to be hosting seven big recruits, including the top-rated 2012 recruit, Shabazz Muhammad. North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse will have at least three, some of whom have already committed. Kansas and Texas will have a pair. Indiana's going to scoop up a lot of leftovers. What used to be a central event that was relatively evenly balanced throughout basketball has now become a competition nearly as heated as games in mid-March.
The fraudulently termed Midnight Madness is the new way to gauge the recruiting arms race. You saw what Crean had to say -- nine of his current players attended a Hoosier Hysteria. In the coming weeks, you'll see a number of commitments, and the pattern will likely continue: a majority of juniors and seniors who verbally latch on to a school will be the same one they attended on Oct. 14.
Coaches love to say so much of what they and their programs do is about the fans, but in this case, it's really not. It's about keeping their jobs, extending their legacies and appeasing teenagers, who are as flaky as you and I were when we roamed high school hallways. Don't call it Midnight Madness and don't say it's primarily about the fans, because at the biggest of basketball schools, that credo has as much credibility as a 16-year-old promising his college career to a man he barely knows.