Ron Morris

Morris: Later start date could aid falling grades

THE LINES OF DEMARCATION that once separated college sports seasons no longer exist. We now have meaningless early season basketball games played the Friday night before late-season football games. We have the NCAA basketball championship game in the middle of baseball season.

The men’s college basketball season, which once began when November turned to December and ended with March Madness, now stretches from days after Halloween through what should be known as April Awareness. This is not the NBA, which seems to begin its season as soon as the previous one ends, but college basketball is inching closer to being far too long.

That soon might change, and we can all be thankful. Really, who needs South Carolina opening its season against S.C. State on Nov. 9, or Clemson tipping off against Furman on Nov. 12, as happened last season? Those games just as easily could have been played three weeks or a month later.

To the credit of college coaches, most seem to agree the season starting date should be changed. They should agree, because the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics recently was called to the scene, and its arrival usually means NCAA change is soon to follow.

Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech’s basketball coach, went to Washington, D.C., a week ago to speak before the Knight Commission. He said the season’s start should be pushed back to late November, allowing athletes more time in the classroom.

“I think about seven of the 10 coaches I talked to are advocating shortening the season and pushing back the start of practice,” Hewitt told the commission, according to USA Today. “Coaches say, ‘I used to start the season around Thanksgiving, and now I’m opening Nov. 9.’ It’s too early. There is a mixed message being sent out here, and we all have to recognize that.”

When the Knight Commission gets involved in an issue, it usually has much to do with academics. That is the case here thanks to ever-growing concerns about the poor Academic Progress Rate numbers across the board in men’s basketball.

Count USC’s Darrin Horn and Clemson’s Oliver Purnell among the concerned. Purnell said the ideal schedule would limit games to one semester, which would mean starting the season in December. That is not realistic.

“There is certainly merit to that (line of thinking), when you’re looking at a freshman coming in and making a transition from high school to a demanding school like Clemson,” Purnell said. “If we were a second-semester sport, he gets in, he gets a summer and the first session before you’ve got the normal pressures of college athletics at a high level to deal with. It’s going to make that transition much easier in many cases.”

Horn said he cannot help but notice the season’s start has crept closer and closer to Nov. 1. A little more than 20 years ago, the uniform starting date for the season was Dec. 1.

“Our concern as coaches, to some degree, is to be guardians of the game,” Horn said. “It’s not going to hurt our game (to move the starting date back), and in fact it could help it because it could enhance academic performance, and ultimately that separates us from another level.”

Purnell, a past president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, said that group has discussed the possibility of either reducing the number of games played or tightening the schedule. So, too, has the NCAA’s Basketball Academic Enhancement Group, a committee of coaches and administrators.

While all might agree the season is too long and a hindrance to the academic performance of athletes, they also understand changing the start date is not as easy as circling a new date on the calendar.

“There’s a number of ways to look at it, and all of them present their problems,” Purnell said. “That’s why it’s not an easy thing to concoct.”

Teams are permitted to play a 29-game regular season. Included in that total is one game to participate in a team’s conference tournament. Additionally, teams are allowed to play in “exempt” tournaments early in the season. Those tournaments also count as one game against the total of 29.

The problem with scheduling — and its reduction — is television. Television contracts with various networks make men’s basketball one of two sports, along with football, that are financially solvent each year. In fact, men’s basketball is a lucrative sport solely because of TV.

Thus, TV dictates when and where games are played. An early season tournament in Orlando, Fla., might be played before a few hundred fans, but it is nonetheless played because TV is paying for its broadcast. If TV wants Duke and North Carolina to tip off at 2 in the morning on a school night, Duke and North Carolina will tip-off at 2 in the morning on a school night.

Whether it is logistically possible is another story, but it seems the start of the men’s basketball season should be pushed back to the Monday before Thanksgiving. Not a whole lot would be hurt if the number of games allowed each season was trimmed to 25.

Finally, how about permitting only one 9 p.m. weekday start per team per season? Two-time defending national champion Florida played four 9 p.m. games last season, including three on weeknights. Two were road games. No group of college students should be subjected to such a schedule.

All of those changes would better take into account the interest of athletes over TV programmers, something that too often is missing in college athletics.