College football ended a few weeks ago and the NFL season ended Sunday night. If you live your life on a sports calendar like I do, then it’s time to focus squarely on college basketball* if you haven’t been already. Saturday's Duke vs. Syracuse game was the perfect "hey, look at me!" game for college hoops on the national radar. But what does it mean to switch over from the pigskin to the round ball? The cultures, traditions, and nuances that make up these games are both great, but are very different. I know it’s a little overdue, but I’m glad I asked.
*The NBA is always on the radar, because it’s the best.
The College Hoops vs. College Football Breakdown:
1. House Party vs. Bar Party
College football tailgates are house parties. Bring your own booze and food, have some of mine, bring whoever you want, and let’s have a great time. You can have such a great time at tailgates that sometimes you won't even need to go into the games...
College basketball pregames are a little bit different of a feel, primarily you find a good bar where other fans are congregating and get in the spirit there. You have to pay full price for your beers, you risk being somewhere that’s over-crowded, but you’re also in an environment that’s designed for pregaming and that neither you nor anyone you know owns.
2. Pretty Girls vs. Weirdos
It’s well-known that a football tailgate can bring out the best in the student body. It’s not exclusive to Georgia and Florida - wherever you go, it’s nice fall weather, it’s the weekend, and it’s a party, so everyone is bound to look good and feel good (unless you went a little too hard the night before). College hoops, though...woof. The most visible characters are normally the guys that paint their chests and wait in line for tickets for 6 hours ahead of time, while the rest of us are at the pregame, mentioned above. There are always exceptions, like Holy Cross and other lackluster mid-majors, where the most visible characters are the only characters, those that can’t help but enjoy mediocre basketball in a mediocre conference. People like me!.
3. Good Weather vs. Bad Weather
This is not to say that a football game can’t have terrible weather, or a hoops game in Florida or Arizona won’t be in absolutely perfect conditions, but by and large basketball takes place in cold weather, and college football in great fall weather.*
*Weather is just so much more a part of football. There's a reason why "outlined against a blue-gray October sky" is a saying, and "on a freezing cold dark January evening" is not.
You’d think it’s a no brainer in favor of football, but I’d argue it’s closer than you think. The cold weather tends to make people S.A.D., which makes a great hoops game on your calendar all the more special. In September and October, maybe you don’t appreciate the moment as much.
4. Inclusive vs. Exclusive
Any division 1 college basketball team could make it into the field of 64 and in theory could win the national championship. In football, a whopping 2 teams are selected to battle it out for the championship, next year it’s doubling to 4. I think that speaks to a more general feel of the respective games. Any basketball game feels like it’s a part of the bigger picture. Any basketball game has a real chance of producing a David over Goliath outcome. Recent NCAA tournaments have seen such mid-major darlings as Butler, Virginia Commonwealth, George Mason, and Wichita State enjoy trips to the final weekend.
College football, by comparison, is more dominated by the “top”, and as a result, a game between two middling teams later in the season feels virtually meaningless (aside from, ya know, school pride and the coaches fighting not to get fired). I’m not saying basketball is better than football in this regard, it’s just a different structure within which teams operate. A basketball program can “get rich quick” and lose it just as quickly, but college football success is either built or eroded over longer periods of time.
5. Familiar players vs. Strangers
If every player stayed in school for exactly 4 years, basketball players would be much more familiar than their pigskin counterparts. There are fewer of them to know, and fans can be closer to the action and they are not wearing helmets.
But the “one and done” phenomenon kind of levels the playing field (or court). With the best basketball players often bolting after one or two years, football players might be the more familiar these days, simply because you have the chance to get to know a player one season, then watch him the next.
6. Sleezy coaches vs… sleezy coaches
There’s no difference here. In both cases, there’s plenty of good guys, but also plenty of slimeballs.
Longer time in between games, and each game meaning more for the success/failure of the season, probably produces a greater level of excitement for college football. The aforementioned giant “house party” atmosphere surrounding the stadium only adds to that.
The in-game excitement could be better at a basketball game, though. The pace of the game is more free-flowing. You’re indoors which contains the noise, and you’re also closer to the action. Emotions can also change more dramatically in basketball since teams trade possessions and score at a much more frantic pace.