PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- One more drinker's holiday, and the calendar will flip. Many Americans are spending this week in silent fear of what's on the other side: a return to the bleak routine of five-day workweeks, the gray skies of short days, and January bills from December's illusions of prosperity. Oh yes, 2010 will pay for 2009... Chase and Capital One will make sure of that.
What is the legacy of this holiday season? Uncomfortable meetings with relatives who don't really get
you, who could never truly understand your hopes and dreams? The banquet flab that ten thousand New Year's resolutions could never wish away? It might be fleeting moments of warm fake-nice that will take 11 months to recapture (unless you move to the Mid-South
), or naive dreams of a better world. But the real cold is coming, and it's bearing down fast. When 2010 comes, you can take down the tree, send the spirit into deep hibernation, and count down the days until Sports Bubble Christmas
. If you want to.
Some of us don't go that way. Instead, January will bring the joy that December denied. For a few of us, the holiday season is something to endure and withstand, to barely tolerate. What keeps us strong through 1,000 soul-crushing spins of "Santa Baby" is the knowledge that our rewards will finally arrive when the pretty lights fade out.
We've been anticipating the start of conference season all along, and it's finally upon us.
The first two months of college basketball are roiling chaos, full of strange concepts that didn't even exist back when the first NCAA Tournament was decided seven decades ago. Guarantee games.
Two-for-ones. Made-for-TV nonconference holiday classics. Even Red Line Upsets
But the league is timeless. Collections of teams tied up in tables, all working towards the same championship, meeting twice (or so) each year in each others' gyms... that predates us and will outlive us. No matter how the fortunes of those individual programs rise and fall, conferences are our bedrocks and ensure that the fixtures stay fixed. There will always be Penn-Princeton games, no matter what.
And we can find comfort in that is we choose to, that ancient rivals will always be bound together in context and never truly die away. They'll always be back to attempt again. Any victory, defeat, dynasty or doldrums is always temporary; what matters is that the games will always be played, winter after winter.
We've been waiting a long time for those rivalries to resume. It's been a long time since the last of the old wars between Old Dominion and VCU, Butler and Wright State. The major cities of Hoops Nation will be battlefields once again when Saint Francis (N.Y.) plays Long Island twice in Brooklyn, when Temple and LaSalle and Saint Joseph's continue their Philadelphia Big 5 struggles against the backdrop of the Atlantic 14 schedule. Loyola and UIC will fight it out in Chicago, and Belmont and Lipscomb will battle for the Boulevard in Nashville
again... two wonderful times.
We're looking forward to the lesser-known but ferocious territory skirmishes like Lehigh v. Lafayette, Charleston and the Citadel. We've been waiting for the holy games with religious undertones, in the predominantly Catholic Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and amongst the hard-hooping Jesuits in the WCC.
It's not all about deep-seated, long-simmering basketball hate, though. True fans know and cherish the rhythms of a league, and the appreciation grows stronger with every passing year. Every season, there might be a UC Riverside game, or the time when Tennessee State comes to town, or Harvard-Dartmouth weekend. New teams might enter the conference -- Northern Colorado, or Bryant, or SIU Edwardsville. Expansion helps keep things fresh; fans know that unlike in non-league season, they'll be back next year, and that the games will mean something.
The closer you get to Our Game, the more these annual cadences define it. Like WAC schools live in fear of "the Hawaii trip," teams in the Badlands Conference collectively groan when the Southern Utah swing is coming. (In the Sun Belt, pretty much every trip is an equal-opportunity headache.) Road trips are landmarks in the season -- longtime Valley coaches keep mental files of all the good restaurants in Carbondale, and Southlanders might always stay in the same hotel when they go to Nacogdoches to play Stephen F. Austin.
For players, the repetition of league season will provide most of the memories. Maybe it's the four long bus trips through darkness to play Ohio in Athens, or Monday night doubleheaders in the SWAC, or the four times that Winthrop came in, and how you measured your team's progress against them over your career.
The league is order in a random world. It's a connection to the past and assurance of the future. Mention two teams and there's a story there, a long string of tales within tales over the years. Say "Bradley and Drake," and there's a flood of games and faces and arenas -- Dick Versace, Maury John, Dolph Pulliam
, Robertson Fieldhouse, the Braves' dominance of the series through the 1990's, that crazy 100-85 tilt three seasons ago
. In regulation!
And without these two months, we wouldn't be able to rank the teams correctly in March, whether it's one through eight or first through sixteenth. These games mean so much, they're set apart and placed in parentheses.
Through a complex series of circumstances, from BracketBusters to overexpansion to a desperation for end-of-term interest, conferences are moving more and more league games up into December. Some are rescheduling league contests early for the purposes of gaining a relatively small national television audience. Those involved in these decisions are obviously not in it for the poetry. They don't see how this breaks up the patterns of the season and disrupts its flow.
But nothing will change this: these two months, this second verse of the beautiful season
, is the season's true heart, and the truth of the college basketball experience. The people in charge of Our Game, and those who wish to profit off its participants, have free reign over the first part. They will twist the ending to their satisfaction, despite any feeble protests. They can tear at the edges of the fabric of conference season, but they'll never tear it apart.
Tonight, the Missouri Valley Conference -- still the greatest and most storied mid-major conference -- will play a full slate of five games from Evansville to Omaha (and yes, Bradley will play Drake
). On Thursday, the MAAC, Big Sky, Horizon League, Sun Belt and Badlands will resume slates that began too soon. By the weekend, nearly all of the Other 24 will join in (except for the stubborn old Ancient Eight
). Things will be back to normal. Hoops Nation can rejoice at the beginning of the real holiday season, the ones that keeps giving for two long and glorious months.