You're reading this, so you're already in on basketball's beautiful, badly kept secret.
You've got the head start. You woke up on Monday morning wanting to digest more college basketball content, even in the thick of December's football chase.
A lot of the others? They have little idea how great college hoops has already been, let alone what it's going to give us over the next three months. But you do, because you've been following along and have been entertained by a star-kissed start to the 2016-17 campaign.
This already feels like the construction of something special, one of those standalone seasons we will recall so many years down the path.
We are, right now, in the midst of a college basketball regeneration -- but with an evolutionary twist. The sport has always been good, but it's rightfully been heavily critiqued (increasingly so) throughout the past decade. Some of those criticisms reached the point of vapid groupthink, but even still: for the people who bashed college basketball for the rationale that it lacked entertaining play or pace, that disparagement is now dead.
Thanks in small part to a 30-second shot clock and in larger part to a noticeable twist in open-minded coaching, college basketball is on track to have all at once its fastest pace-of play season, its most successful shooting season and its highest-scoring season in a very long time.
I remember in July of 2015 when I was in gyms in South Carolina and Las Vegas and getting an up-close look at one of the most promising high school classes of this century. Long before the country had seen De'Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson, those players and about 20 more were building a buzz on the recruiting scene that was spilling over into college basketball on the whole. It certainly looked like the deepest set of prospects in years. I remember thinking about all these talents -- so many obvious future NBA picks -- and wondering if they'd immediately translate to college basketball and make for a really good season of hoop down the road.
That was 17 months ago. Now we're in mid-December and those freshmen are delivering beyond the hype. I track the top 10 Freshman of the Year candidates, and I swear to you there are another 10 who have a case to be on the back end of that list. But this season is not just about the newbies. College basketball thrives when its biggest programs are ranked, winning in gobs and doing so against other ranked teams on national stages.
Barely a month into the season, we've already been blessed with plenty of that.
So in the wake of Kentucky's awesome win over North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classis on Saturday, I couldn't help but think how this could become the greatest season of college basketball, start to finish, that we've seen in more than a decade. Last week, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, UNC and UCLA were all ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll for the second consecutive week. It was the first time in 22 years this had happened. (That's shocking, but it speaks to how hard it is even for the very best in the sport to all be really, really good at the same moment. Even now, Indiana has fallen out of the top 10 after losing to really good Butler.)
You probably heard that blue-blood-top-10 stat. The reason you did is because it matters, because college basketball -- just like college football -- relies on its very best programs in order to gain social currency in increased sports commentary on a national and everyday level. Each college hoops season is fun unto itself, but when you have those six schools, plus Big East flagship program No. 1 Villanova remaining undefeated since winning the best national title game in NCAA Tournament history, well it's a boon for the interest in the sport.
The six blue bloods and the reigning national champs have combined to go 71-7 (!) so far this season. Add in the likes of perennial tournament staples Louisville, Wisconsin, Virginia, Gonzaga, Arizona, Xavier, Butler and Baylor, and all the aforementioned schools are a combined/ridiculous 151-16. That's an outrageous win percentage of .904 this season for 15 of the most relevant college basketball programs over the past near-decade.
Yes, we have some normally reliable teams that are struggling (Syracuse and Michigan State both took rough home losses over the weekend, and UConn might have to fight to get into the NIT) but you never have a season in which the top 20 programs in the sport are all really, really good. Everyone's going to take a dip here and there. If anything, Tom Izzo and Jim Boeheim (both Hall of Fame coaches) will likely get their teams into the NCAAs anyway.
And I don't think we need to cherish this in the moment. If you're just coming in now to read more about college basketball (because maybe that UNC-UK game, which set a record this season so far for ratings, piqued your interest), you're going to have a lot more chances to check out the biggest and brightest. The best is not behind us. We're going to keep seeing the most important teams put on really great performances and push college basketball even further into the national sports conversation as the sport gets really going in January.
The season is only going to get better. It's going to be near-impossible to top that UK-UNC game, but I bet we get 8-10 nominees before Selection Sunday. The talent is too good at the top not to have a watchable and compelling run through winter. The best part is: All these blue bloods being this good will almost certainly shuttle them to No. 1, No. 2, No.3 and No. 4 seeds come March.
The country loves to root against the big brands in their bracket, but that's irrelevant. You'll watch because Kentucky will have Malik Monk dropping 3s, UCLA will have Lonzo Ball making you believe in magic, Kansas will have Josh Jackson playing for his case to be the top draft pick, Indiana will have one of the best offenses in America. People still randomly love to doubt Villanova. North Carolina could wind up being better this March than it was last March, when it barely lost the national title. And Duke is positioned to have one of the most dominant and talented rosters in the history of its program.
When one of the best freshman classes ever collides with one of the best years for college hoops' hallowed teams, it makes for more games that not only matter but also catalyzes curiosity all over.
One of college basketball's best personality traits is its true sense of unpredictability. But that element is saved for the end of the year. For now, count on the reliable. I can predict with confidence that the most storied programs will will remain ranked, remain worth watching and continue to rise the tide for this sport. You'll care more and the people who typically don't care until March will start to watch earlier. We like stars and we get drawn in when familiar villains flash for greatness.
Frank Mason's Madison Square Garden winner over Duke was the first horn blare on a big year. Monk's 47-point masterpiece was the latest omen for auspiciousness. One the whole, 2016 was a bad year in a lot of ways, but not for college basketball. This was a great year, and what's even more stupendous is that 2017 is set up to top it.