10 Things to Love About College Basketball

From Midnight Madness to March Madness, and everything in between, college basketball offers fans iconic characters, high drama, and unforgettable moments.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on November 14, 2023
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College basketball season has tipped off, ushering in four months of hoops hysteria culminating with a team celebrating one shining moment in March.

Along the way, let's appreciate the countless reasons why we enjoy this uniquely American spectacle (actually, I counted — there are 10).

10. Kooky Traditions

From Indiana's Greatest Time Out to John Brown University's toilet paper game to Taylor University's "Silent Night," college basketball is Rock Chalk-full of zany traditions that have endeared fans for generations. The fun begins even before the season starts, with universities nationwide hosting "Midnight Madness" celebrations featuring A-list acts, team scrimmages, and ample supplies of NoDoz and Red Bull. When the season ends, some teams cut down the nets, each player taking a strand with which they weave friendship bracelets for their besties.

9. Rabid Fans

Kooky traditions are nothing without rabid fans who scream, stomp, and storm the court with regularity. Notable hysterical hoopheads include Duke's Cameron Crazies, who wave and chant and bounce to regain circulation after camping out for days to snag game tickets. Add to this list Pitt's bonkers "Oakland Zoo" contingent, San Diego State's student section known as "The Show," the thousands of North Carolina Tar Heels who flood Franklin Street en masse following a victory, and one ancient but lovably loyal Loyola fan, Sister Jean.

8. Colorful Coaches

Whether it's Indiana's Bobby Knight hurling a chair across the court, UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian munching on a towel, Maryland's Gary Williams sweating buckets, or Duke's Mike Krzyzewski snarling at referees, there's rarely a dull moment on the sidelines. "Colorful" refers not only to peculiar personalities but also to sartorial splendor. St. John's Rick Pitino and Kentucky's John Calipari have a habit of donning the finest Armani suits. And who can forget former St. John's coach Lou Carnesecca's funky sweaters or West Virginia's Bob Huggins and his mustard-yellow getup? And what on earth is the deal with LSU coach Kim Mulkey's attire?

7. Outrageous Mascots

Not wanting to be upstaged by histrionic coaches, mascots have their own ways of gaining attention, mostly by their very appearance. Witness Xavier's Blue Blob, Bradley's gargoyle named "Kaboom," Cal-Irvine's Peter the Anteater, Wichita State's WuShock thingy, St. Louis University's creepy Billiken, Delta State's hideous Fighting Okra, Stanford's misshapen tree, or Western Kentucky's "Big Red," the ill-conceived spawn of Elmo and Wilkins.

6. Iconic Venues

With more than 350 Division I schools alone, college basketball has plenty of famous arenas to choose from. How about Penn's Palestra, routinely called the "Cathedral of College Basketball" and America's most historic gym? Or New Mexico's Dreamstyle Arena, affectionately referred to as "The Pit" owing to its subterranean design? Let's not leave out Kentucky's Rupp Arena, Indiana's Assembly Hall, Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, North Carolina's Dean Smith Center, Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse, where "Hoosiers" was filmed. Unlike massive football stadiums that offer views leading spectators to believe they're seated in the next town, most basketball arenas offer a much more intimate feel, like you're right on top of the action. And they can be rather loud, reaching as high as 130 decibels, equivalent to a jet taking off.

5. Predictable Parity

Yes, the sport features blue bloods such as Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, and North Carolina. But for every Kansas, there's a Butler; for every Kentucky, there's a George Mason. In the last 83 years, 36 different teams have won a national title. On any given night, a relatively unknown school can shock a top program. Heck, even two Ivy League teams reached the Final Four: Princeton in 1965 and Penn in 1979. By comparison, in college football 11 of the last 15 national champions have come from one conference, the SEC. Talent is more spread out in college hoops, and a team with one or two blue-chip players can dominate. Larry Bird single-handedly led his Indiana State team to the championship game in 1979, falling to Magic Johnson's Michigan State squad (great timing, Penn).

4. Women's Hoops

Granted, women's basketball enjoys less parity than the men's game, but the rise of women's hoops has been nothing short of spectacular. Over the past two decades, UConn, Tennessee, Baylor, and South Carolina helped popularize the game such that Iowa can now sell 47,000 tickets for an exhibition contest. Last year's women's Final Four drew a TV audience 95% larger than the previous year's, and recent media growth has outpaced the men's game. Today's stars such as Iowa's Caitlin Clark, LSU's Angel Reese, and Stanford's Haley Jones have signed lucrative name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, and women's hoops now ranks third among college sports for NIL endorsements, behind only college football and men's basketball.

3. Epic Moments

College hoops fans remember where they were — and how they felt — during the sport's most epic moments. How about unforgettable upsets like tiny Chaminade over top-ranked Virginia in 1982, or Villanova's 1985 shocking defeat of powerhouse Georgetown in the national title game, or Duke stunning unbeaten and seemingly invincible UNLV in 1991? Singular plays also leave indelible images: Lorenzo Charles' putback to send NC State to a title over heavily favored Houston. Chris Webber's timeout that cost Michigan a shot at a championship. Danny Ainge weaving his way down the court and sinking a layup to send Brigham Young over Notre Dame. Then there are the buzzer-beaters too numerous to list, including Valparaiso's Bryce Drew knocking off Ole Miss, Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale winning the 2018 title over Mississippi State, and, of course, the iconic buzzer-beater to beat all buzzer-beaters, Duke's Christian Laettner hitting "The Shot" in 1992 to stun Kentucky.

2. Conference Tournaments

Before "the" tournament begins, we're blessed with "Championship Week," when conferences hold their own tournaments to crown the conference winner. For some schools, winning that tournament is their last-chance ticket to the Big Dance and a shot at ultimate glory. Who can forget UConn's Big East run in 2011, when the ninth-seeded Huskies won five games in five days at Madison Square Garden en route to an unexpected national title? Or Georgia, the bottom seed, winning the 2008 SEC tournament in improbable fashion? And how about in 2010, when ninth-seeded Ohio won the Mid-American Conference tourney and, as a 14-seed, upset No. 3 Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA tournament? Even the Ivy League has gotten in on the action, having launched its own conference tourney in 2017.

1. March Madness

For three weeks each spring, college basketball captures the nation's attention with its March Madness tournament, and talk of Selection Sunday, bubble teams, top seeds, at-large bids, play-in games, buzzer-beaters, Cinderellas, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four is on everyone's lips. The first round, held on a Thursday and Friday, truly defines the madness, with 15-seeds routinely topping 2-seeds and even the occasional 16-seed beating a 1. America's work productivity stalls significantly on those two days, as employees surreptitiously watch games, discuss standings in office pools, and contemplate the sheer improbability of predicting a perfect bracket. Since its inception in 1939, the NCAA tournament has continually expanded, landing at today's field of 68 in 2011. Now there's talk of it mushrooming to 90 teams, which angers purists yet offers a ray of hope to more schools seeking that One Shining Moment.