That red-carpet path to the regular-season Pacific-10 Conference championship has turned into a board-game maze for the Washington Huskies.
They can’t break down a basic zone defense. They step out of timeout huddles with plans as foggy as assembly instructions left in the back pocket of freshly washed blue jeans.
They go to the basket with the timidity of a driver who checks the blind side three times before changing lanes, then forgets to turn off the blinker.
And now for some good news: The slate is clear for the Huskies. College basketball doesn’t really tip off until the NFL has anointed a champion, so nothing much counted before Sunday night, when a blizzard of sparkling confetti – the only blizzard Dallas is equipped to handle – fell upon the trophy presentation following Super Bowl XLV.
I know, the schedule insists the college basketball season already has three months of traction. But if schedules were to be trusted, then football wouldn’t dawdle into February, and baseball wouldn’t bump into November, and pro soccer players would enjoy an offseason longer than an appetizers-at-half-price happy hour.
Besides, I can’t change the world. I can only acknowledge the way its sports seasons turn.
There’s no logical explanation for why football interferes with basketball. During the two-week lull between the conference finals and Super Sunday, there were, by my unofficial estimation, 383,000 games of college hoops on TV. And although the only conflict with NFL action was last week’s Pro Bowl (which took indecent liberties with the definition of the word “action”), I found myself suspecting that no college basketball result would be relevant until the coast was clear of stories about Big Ben, Mr. Rodgers, toothless Steelers linebackers of the 1970s and pilgrimages made to the shrine of St. Vincent of Lombardi.
Hey, I take ’em one sport at a time.
Without saying as much, Lorenzo Romar said as much this past weekend.
“We were 5-2 in 2006, and we lost three road games in a row and we were 5-5,” the Huskies coach recalled after his team’s third straight road-game defeat dropped its conference record to 7-4. “Everyone else panicked, but we didn’t. We ended up finishing second and going to the Sweet 16.”
Romar’s memory of his team’s 2006 record is precise, but he’s forgotten the rest of the story. Panic in Seattle over a three-game losing streak that culminated with a Feb. 4 thumping at Washington State? There was no panic in Seattle on Feb. 4, 2006.
There was merely a sense of a franchise on the brink of history, producing a giddy optimism tempered with trepidation. The following afternoon in Detroit, the optimism and trepidation were replaced by frustration and outrage.
The Seahawks had lost the Super Bowl, and it was only when they returned home that fans were able to turn their lonely eyes toward the Huskies.
Pop quiz: Identify a significant college basketball game played before the Super Bowl. I don’t mean just this year. I mean, over the past 45 years.
I’ve got one: No. 1 Virginia versus No. 2 Georgetown at Landover, Md., on Dec. 11, 1982. Less an interconference showdown between the ACC and the Big East than an epic collision of the Cavaliers’ 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson and the Hoyas’ 6-11 Patrick Ewing, the significance of that game is that it was televised by Atlanta superstation WTBS, and thus became the first major college sporting event seen exclusively by a cable-television audience.
Oh, by the way, Virginia won, 69-63. I had forgotten that, and I was there.
On the other hand, some of the college basketball’s most memorable regular-season games have been played in the immediate aftermath of the Super Bowl.
Unbeaten Houston, behind Elvin Hayes, edged unbeaten UCLA, behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) in the first nationally televised prime-time game – college basketball’s “Game of the Century” – on Jan. 20, 1968. This was six days after the Packers’ 35-10 victory over Oakland in Super Bowl II, after which they carried coach Vince Lombardi off the field for the final time.
Notre Dame rallied from an 11-point deficit, with 3:30 remaining, to snap UCLA’s 88-game winning streak on Jan. 19, 1974. This was six days after the Dolphins rolled over the Vikings in a 24-7 snoozer.
It should be noted that the sports calendars of that ancient era changed seasons in the middle of January, instead of the first week in February. And given the prospect of the NFL adding two more games to its regular-season schedule, future Super Bowls likely will be pushed to an even later date in February.
College basketball has countered the trend with a week of fluff-before-the-drama conference tournaments – the more powerful the conference, the more meaningless the tournament – and an expanded NCAA tournament field that is now at 68 teams and counting.
Still, it can’t be denied that the NFL is the big dog hogging the spotlight. Whatever happened during the three months of college basketball that came before the Super Bowl belongs to the archives, but it wasn’t a season. It was a prelude.
If Lorenzo Romar needs a pep-talk idea, he might want to borrow the familiar line from the opening ceremonies at the Olympics: “Let the games begin.”
Check that. There’s an even better line associated with the Indianapolis 500, one of the few sporting events oblivious to the NFL’s ever-encroaching schedule.
“Gentlemen, start your engines.”
It’s you’ve-got-game time, Huskies: Five weeks to put up or shut up; five weeks to either ride a blast of momentum into the NCAA tournament, or hope that a sympathetic selection committee takes mercy on athletic teams unable to solve a zone defense.
The floor is yours.