What is the surest sign that college basketball is about to strike Midnight (Madness) and begin anew?
Is it the Dunkin' Donuts pumpkin coffee, sweatshirt-wearing weather, and the Twitter popularity of the Talented Mr. Roto? While all are indicators that fall is in full swing, the best barometer of a new season nearing its tip-off is an increasing presence in the inbox.
Starting in November, I will be answering several reader emails or tweets at the end of each column, but with the game in the midst of the calm before the storm, I thought I would clear the inbox, answer the best questions and give virtual space to the best comments from the summer that was.
We begin with the obsession that is the college basketball hierarchy, better known in this space as the Fine 15. I was called many names not printable in this column by everybody outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is no surprise since the Harrison Barnes-led Tar Heels topped the summer poll. Here were a few of the best comments.
"How can you put Vanderbilt at sixth? Each and every year I hear all of the talking heads gush about the ability, the promise of this team, and by March they fail to live up to expectations."
-- Dave, Wilmington, DE
"The Tar Heels at number one? Well that wasn't obvious. I'm glad I can read this column all season for such earth-shattering news like the sky is blue."
-- Mark, Durham, NC
Vanderbilt returns its prominent players on the perimeter (John Jenkins and Jeffrey Taylor) and in the paint, where Festus Ezeli was one of the most improved players nationally last season. Yes, the Commodores sputtered down the stretch last season, finishing 4-4 over their last eight games and bowing out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round to eventual Sweet 16 participant Richmond, 69-66. Some have labeled the Commodores "soft," but I see anything but in head coach Kevin Stallings' demeanor, and I believe he will use the late-season swoon as a teaching point for his veteran-laden team this season.
In a preseason void of many experienced rosters, Vanderbilt's sixth-place setting is both a byproduct of its returning talent and experience and the raw, unproven options vying for its power poll position.
Also, I knew I'd get some pushback on the hot-button rankings issue, but I'm not sure anyone has a case against North Carolina's position on the top line. On second thought, Mark's hometown (Durham, NC) speaks volumes. Duke fans, and sorry Mark for making an assumption to your fandom, were giddy at the possibility of an Austin Rivers-led unit and a UNC outfit in transition mode. Instead, Barnes and the Tar Heels' two bigs (Tyler Zeller and John Henson) both returned and will be fed in Roy Williams' transition offense by emerging point man Kendall Marshall.
North Carolina is always known for its offense, but the Tar Heels played great defense down the stretch last season, a stat well chronicled in the column archive. If they keep up the intensity on that end of the floor and bring their A-game (a tall task for sure), I'm not sure there is another team in the country that can stay on the same floor over 40 minutes.
We also received some great responses to the latest column on conference realignment, a piece posted just a day before Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced their defection from the Big East to the ACC. The last response was the most surprising, an email received at 10:30 p.m. from an influential voice.
"How do you think Pittsburgh and Syracuse's move plays in the ACC?"
-- Mark, Syracuse, NY
"It is just a case, as you say, of the power players segregating the little guys even further. The 'little guy' is what makes March so great, but I feel the game's decision makers can't make up their mind on how much business to allow in the game. Cut down on recruiting exposure then try to expand the tournament to sights unseen. It makes little sense."
-- Greg, Mt. Pocono, PA
First things first, Pittsburgh and Syracuse kept the pending move surprisingly hush-hush until the last possible second, catching everyone, including Big East power brokers, off guard. This is bad news for the Big East, a conference that made its national mark and its money off college basketball. The conference got much weaker in losing two of its heavyweights, and now must look at several possible Big 12 targets (Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State) to move back to the sport's top line.
That line will be held by the ACC when the two schools become practicing members of the league. Imagine a two-division conference with Pittsburgh and Duke headlining one side and Syracuse-North Carolina topping the other. Talk about loaded. The ACC also becomes stronger in the other major moneymaker, football, where Pittsburgh brings a high mid-tier program and Syracuse has the history to perhaps take advantage of the recruiting rich Piedmont-region.
Amen, Greg, with your overarching point. The NCAA needs to either rule with an across-the-board fist or develop a hands-off approach other than in circumstances of necessity. It can't insult the fans, the schools, the game itself by scolding schools in the media then patting them on the back when no one is looking. Unlike you, however, I feel the NCAA has tackled these issues in a proactive manner as of late during very-difficult-to-monitor times.
And finally, a late-night email from the man behind March's madness.
In talking about the First Four's success, I urged interim executive vice president Greg Shaheen to listen to fans' cries against tournament expansion.
His response, "No worries. I'm always listening."
The logistics are still to be determined, but at some point in the next month or so, I hope to talk to Shaheen about the business side and what it means for the future of the game and the NCAA Tournament. So stay tuned.