Last night I watched SportsCenter on ESPN at 8 PM as my pregnant wife snoozed away (I wrenched the remote away stealthily and changed it from some housewife show). Midway through the show, Scott Van Pelt and Steve Levy were rattling through highlights of college basketball games. Following a Maryland basketball package where Van Pelt showed how much of a homer he is, they transitioned to show 90 or so seconds of footage from last night’s University of North Carolina vs. North Carolina State game. I immediately thought to myself, “Self, why is UNC getting this much press on SportsCenter? Didn’t they just drop WAY out of the top 25 in both polls?”
So I did some research. Carolina got a combined one vote in both poll. That one vote came in the ESPN/Coaches Poll, meaning not a single Associated Press writer voted the Tar Heels into the top 25 this week. I wonder what coach voted for UNC? Do you think he collects paychecks from an ACC school?
North Carolina, a school that has unmistakable ties to ESPN seeing that the network broadcasts ACC games and the annual ACC tournament, happened to win their game over NC State, a team they usually pummel. UNC has reeled since the turn of the new year, going 2-4 since 2009 passed. They had been 11-3. They’ve started 2-3 in the ACC and are 13-7 overall. They don’t deserve a top 25 spot and seeing that ESPN rarely shows highlights of games that feature no top 25 teams, they don’t deserve the coverage they received on SportsCenter last night.
But what will Dick Vitale have to talk about if North Carolina isn’t in the top 25? Who will he get to promote?
Well, let’s look at some other schools that Dickie V can take a look at. There is a litany of schools that have received votes or are in the top 25 that get little to no press and certainly aren’t given two minutes of coverage on SportsCenter.
How about Northern Iowa? That squad is currently 17-2 and ranked 25th in the ESPN poll.
Or what about Baylor? They are from a big conference where their up-tempo play has led them to a 15-3 record and a number 24 ranking in the AP poll.
Looking for someone a little more stable? How about BYU? The Cougars have one loss this year and are ranked tenth in the ESPN poll out of the impressive Mountain West Conference (more on the MWC later).
Or maybe UAB catches your fancy. They’re number 25 in the AP poll, sporting a 17-2 record.
So why don’t we hear about these great stories? Who is reporting on these teams? There are so many amazing seasons underway for schools that are impressing a lot more voting writers and coaches than UNC. The following teams from big conferences are outside the top 25, but got more votes than Carolina in the most recent polls: Florida State, Clemson, Wake Forest, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Missouri, Maryland, Virginia, Northwestern, Cal and Notre Dame.
And how about the little guys? College basketball is built on the backs of the small schools that make March so exciting. Where are their stories? The following small conference schools are outside of the top 25 and have drawn more votes than the Heels: Butler (#18 in coaches poll, not ranked in AP), Cornell, Old Dominion, Xavier, UNLV, Siena, Saint Mary’s, Louisiana Tech, and Harvard. Coastal Carolina has the same number of votes as UNC, which is one.
That’s right, Coastal Carolina has as many votes as UNC, and Cornell, Harvard and Old Dominion have significantly more ballots cast. So where are the 90-second highlight packages on their seasons? Oh that’s right, ESPN needs to make sure everyone knows the Tar Heel players so they are more recognizable when they have their first matchup with Duke on February 10th. Duh.
ESPN’s alliance with the ACC and other big conferences runs deep. Jay Bilas went to Duke. Hubert Davis went to North Carolina. So did Stuart Scott. Dick Vitale praises anything that has to do with ACC basketball, especially if it takes place on Tobacco Road. The network carries their games and the tournament, as previously mentioned. Unfortunately, ESPN has such an effect on the landscape of college basketball that poll results may be swayed by their coverage.
Take the Mountain West Conference. Home to the likes of BYU, Utah, San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, the conference has continually made strides, but seems to stay out of the national conscience. MWC teams consistently downed big conference powers in pre-conference play. Arizona lost to three Mountain West teams (BYU, UNLV and SDSU). BYU also beat Arizona State. Louisville lost to UNLV. Utah took down Illinois, Michigan and LSU. New Mexico defeated Cal, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
The conference currently boasts two teams in the top 25 (BYU and New Mexico), with a third (UNLV) having spent time there and still receiving votes. The MWC also boasts big name coaches like Steve Alford (UNM), Lon Kruger (UNLV) and Steve Fisher (SDSU). So what’s keeping them from getting more attention? Could it be partially because of ESPN’s lack of coverage while they are too busy giving time to ACC teams that are well out of the top 25?
UNLV only has four losses and two are to teams currently ranked in the top 15 (BYU and Kansas State). The others are to USC in a Christmas tournament championship and Utah in a tough MWC matchup. There are eight other teams currently in the top 25 that have four or more losses. The Rebels have only two conference losses and one is at BYU. The Cougars come to the Thomas & Mack center for the Vegas rematch on February 6th.
The MWC has television contracts with CBS College Sports and The Mountain, a network created by the conference. ESPN has no vested interest to show their highlights, promote their games or make fans (and potential voters) aware of the brand of basketball being played in the conference. One could laugh at ESPN for their fair and balanced coverage the way the general public does when someone talks about Fox News Channel.
The Mountain West is not the only conference being slighted as there is plenty of great basketball being played that the majority of the viewing (and voting) public knows little to nothing about.
The “Mothership” owes the legions of sports fans better than this. Let’s drop the coverage of a floundering UNC team just a tad (you can still report on it and promote their games) and up the ante by talking up the big games in other conferences that have teams receiving significantly more top 25 votes, regardless of who their TV contract is with.
Let’s start with this: Cornell hosts Harvard on Saturday night. Let’s cover that like you did the two unranked teams you gave pub to last night when UNC vs. NC State was pushed upon us. At least Cornell and Harvard have more combined poll votes (18) than the Heels do (1).
Let’s all hope for a Big Red win over the Crimson to push them over the edge in the ESPN/Coaches Poll. They are ranked number 27 now. A top 25 berth would make ESPN cover them. One can only wish…