TIME College Basketball

A Wisconsin-Duke Final Is Just Fine

Quinn Cook #2, Jahlil Okafor #15 and Justise Winslow #12 of the Duke Blue Devils acknowledge fans while walking off the court following their 81-61 win against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Lance King—Getty Images Quinn Cook #2, Jahlil Okafor #15 and Justise Winslow #12 of the Duke Blue Devils acknowledge fans while walking off the court following their 81-61 win against the Michigan State Spartans during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Without undefeated Kentucky, this year's title game won't be historic. But it's still loaded with intrigue

At the start of the 2014-15 college basketball season, 351 Division I teams had a chance to win the national championship. Going into this weekend, four teams remained: undefeated Kentucky and Wisconsin on one side of the bracket, Duke and Michigan State on the other. Let’s face it: Duke-Kentucky would have been a dandy final. Both programs have a national imprint. Dynastic Duke is the New York Yankees, or Dallas Cowboys, of college hoops. Kentucky is not only a blue blood program, but more recently it’s a factory of future NBA talent led by a divisive coach, master salesman John Calipari. The NCAA had already nullified two Final Four appearances of his prior teams, UMass and Memphis.

Imagine Calipari’s Cats just needing to get by the venerable Coach K, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, to complete the first perfect season in major men’s college basketball since 1976. The good vs. evil narrative, trite as it is, would write itself. The cunning Calipari, the man whose system of shuttling players to the NBA after a year of college is a supposed affront to higher education, on one side, against Coach K, molder of student-athletes at prestigious Duke. That match-up guaranteed a monster TV rating.

Well, it’s not happening. Duke held up its end, as the Blue Devils trounced Michigan State, 81-61. However, Wisconsin gutted out a thrilling 71-64 victory over Kentucky to squash the Wildcats’ dreams of perfection. Plus, the Calipari/Krzyzewski clash is hogwash. If anything, Krzyzewski has copycatted Calipari’s strategy of recruiting NBA-ready players who are only in college because NBA rules require that they spend a year in school before they’re drafted. Kyrie Irving, Austin Rivers and Jabari Parker left Duke after just one year in 2011, 2012 and 2014, respectively; this year, Duke freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow are locks to be high first-round picks. Freshman guard Tyrus Jones could also go pro. So who’s one-and-done U here?

MORE: Here’s Your Final Four Drinking Game

According to the ol’ eye test, the Blue Devils were just too good for Michigan State on Saturday night. They should swarm Wisconsin too. In the first half against Kentucky, the Badgers needed a few crazy shots to go in to stay ahead. In the end, the skills of Wisconsin stars Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker—combined with some sloppy execution by Kentucky, which relied too much on guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison to create scoring chances, rather than give the ball to the big men—made the difference.

On Sunday, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said he got numerous texts from people reminding him that when the Team USA hockey team beat the Soviet Union to complete the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. still had to defeat Finland in the gold medal game. It’s cute to compare Wisconsin’s win over Kentucky to the Miracle on Ice, or even to Duke’s upset of the undefeated UNLV team in the 1991 national semis, but both comparisons are off. That Soviet team was unbeatable, and on paper a bunch of American amateurs had no conceivable shot to win. That UNLV team was not only undefeated, but it crushed everyone all year and had the same nucleus as the team that won the national title in 1990. Kentucky had a few close calls this season, including one just last week against Notre Dame in the regional final. The Wildcats had a perfect season going, but they weren’t a perfect team. It’s not entirely stunning that they lost.

And Duke, I suspect, poses a bigger challenge than the Fins—relatively speaking. If the Badgers are to beat Duke on Monday night, they’ll have to pull off the same feat they did against the Wildcats: make tough shots against a bunch of future pros. That’s difficult to do for two straight games.

One observer’s prognosis: one-and-done U will win the title. Just not the one most people expected.

TIME College Basketball

Here’s Your 2015 Final Four Drinking Game

Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Midwest Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, on Mar. 28, 2015.
Gregory Shamus—Getty Images Aaron Harrison of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates after defeating the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Midwest Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, on Mar. 28, 2015.

How to liven up a hoops party -- responsibly

TIME introduced its inaugural Final Four drinking game last year, and our second installment is back by popular demand—just in time for Saturday’s match-ups from Indianapolis. Duke plays Michigan State at 6:09 p.m. E.T., while Wisconsin and Kentucky tip off at 8:49 p.m. TBS will broadcast both games.

As always, please play responsibly. Follow local laws, don’t overindulge and please take a cab home if need be.

With that, here are this year’s rules:

Drink When Raf Calls “Man-to-Man”

Announcer Bill Raftery, the avuncular, white-haired former coach who has popularized phrases like “with a kiss” for a player who makes a bank shot, will finally call a Final Four on television. This honor is long overdue, and the arrest of former top analyst Greg Anthony in January for allegedly soliciting a prostitute created a spot for Raftery. Listen for the sweetest sound in March: at the beginning of each game, soon after the tip, Raftery will chirp that the defense is in “man-to-man!” He’s pumped, so you’re pumped. Who wouldn’t drink to that?

Raise Your Glass When TBS Airs Gordon Hayward’s Missed Half Court Shot

This is the first Final Four in Indianapolis since 2010, when the Blue Devils cut down the nets at Lucas Oil Stadium after defeating Butler in the championship game, 61-59. Butler’s Gordon Hayward, who now plays for the Utah Jazz, barely missed a half-court shot at the buzzer that would have given the hometown Bulldogs the win. TBS producers surely have that clip cued up for Saturday.

When You See a Slap, Hit the Tap

To rev themselves up, Duke players love to slap the floor.

Take a Sip When Announcers Play Up Michigan State’s Hometown Friends

Michigan State players Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes grew up together in Lansing, Michigan, a jump shot away from Michigan State’s campus in East Lansing. They’d down Capri Suns from Valentine’s fridge and were high school teammates. The announcers will start yapping about the Lansing connection, and you’ll know what to do.

Drink When Frank the Tank Makes an Improbable Shot

Wisconsin’s Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, arguably the country’s best college player, is effective because he can score in all sorts of different ways. Drink up every time Tank makes a goofy, off-balance shot that has no business going in.

Finish Your Beer When Dekker Hits a Three

Sharpshooter Sam Dekker torched Arizona in the West region final, scoring 27 points in Wisconsin’s 85-78 win. In the second half, Dekker didn’t miss a shot, going 6-6 from the field and 3-3 from the foul line. His three off the dribble in the waning seconds sealed the win, and made Aaron Rodgers real happy. “Sam Dekker pretty much crushed our dreams,” Arizona’s T.J. McConnell said after the game. But he may even liven up your party, if you sip when Dekker hits a three.

Down a Drink When the Announcers Name Drop the Harrison Twins

In last year’s Kentucky-Wisconsin national semifinal, Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison hit the game-winning three pointer with less than 6 seconds left. He hit another big one down the stretch in Kentucky’s thrilling 68-66 victory over Notre Dame in the regional last Saturday, and in that game, his twin brother Andrew made the deciding free throws. In last year’s title game, however, UConn’s guards outplayed Kentucky’s brotherly backcourt, a key factor in UConn’s win.

Toast to Ashley Judd Hitting the Jumbotron

When the camera pans to Kentucky super fan Ashley Judd, which seems to happen a few dozen times every game, keep the celebration going.

Bottoms Up When Announcers Predict First-Draft Picks

If you prefer pro hoops to the college version, you should still tune into this year’s Final Four, for no other reason than you’ll see plenty of future NBA talent. One writer predicts that as many as eight top prospects may be selected by NBA teams that participate in the annual draft lottery, where the luck of the ping-pong ball determines a bad team’s draft position.

Cheers to a Potentially Perfect Season

The biggest storyline going into this year’s Final Four: Kentucky’s quest for perfection. The Wildcats are 38-0, and two more wins would give them the first perfect season in major men’s college basketball since 1975-1976, when the Indiana Hoosiers of Kent Benson, Quinn Buckner and Scott May ran the table. So raise a glass every time you hear “1976 Indiana Hoosiers.” We’ll drink to history.

TIME Sports

No Cheers for Indiana Going Into the Final Four

Demonstrators gather outside the City County Building in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 30, 2015.
Aaron P. Bernstein—Getty Images Demonstrators gather outside the City County Building in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 30, 2015.

Host city Indianapolis is stealing the spotlight, thanks to the state's controversial new legislation on religious freedom

This week, sports fans will turn their eyes towards Indianapolis and what promises to be a memorable Final Four. Kentucky is going for a perfect season—for men’s college hoops, it would be the first in almost 40 years. Sharpshooting Wisconsin, led by All-American and possible national player of the year Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, will try to end the Wildcats’ winning streak in one national semifinal. In the other semi, the biggest name in college basketball—Duke—faces off against Final Four regular Michigan State. This year’s event features star players (Kaminsky, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor) and brand-name coaches (Coach K, John Calipari, Tom Izzo). It’s a dream showcase for the NCAA.

Too bad all anyone can talk about is Indiana.

No, not the Hoosier hoops program: IU left the Big Dance long ago. Indiana—more specifically Indianapolis, the Final Four host city—is stealing the spotlight, thanks to controversial new legislation that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last week. Critics of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) say the law gives businesses license to discriminate against LGBT residents, in the name of religious freedom. Indiana is the 20th state to pass a RFRA, but a) unlike some other states, Indiana does not specifically protect the LGBT population from discrimination elsewhere in the state code; b) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law in 2015, an era in which Americans have become much more accepting of gay people, and in which same-sex marriage could become the law of the land (15 states passed these laws between 1993 and 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) and c) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law just days before a mass American cultural tradition plays out in its largest, most important city.

Final Four hosts cities are like the refs. If they’re the topic of conversation, something must have gone terribly wrong.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana’s Governor

Indianapolis is in a particularly rough spot. Any economist will tell you that sports is usually an ineffective development tool. But if any city has successfully bet on sports to lift its fortunes, it’s Indy. Back in the 1960s, the most exciting things going on in its desolate downtown was the pigeon shooting—citizens would spray bullets on Sundays to control the population. “We were India-no-place,” Indy Mayor Greg Ballard tells TIME.

To revitalize “Naptown,” business and government leaders settled on a sports strategy: The city would try to lure teams and major international events. First, a downtown arena, home to the Indiana Pacers, opened in 1974. The Indiana Sports Corp. became the first non-profit commission in the U.S. dedicated to recruiting and managing sports events. The city built the Hoosier Dome—which helped attract the Colts from Baltimore in 1984—and invested in track and field, swimming and cycling facilities to host the 1982 National Sports Festival and 1987 Pan Am Games. The national governing bodies for track and field, swimming and gymnastics all settled in Indianapolis. Hotels and office buildings sprouted. In 1987, National Geographic called Indianapolis “The Cinderella of the Rustbelt.” The NCAA moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1999. The city has hosted more men’s Final Fours—six, including this one—over the past 25 years than any other in the country. The 2012 Super Bowl was a success. And overall, Indy’s compact downtown makes it an ideal setting for big-time events.

“It’s fair to say that this city was built on sports,” says Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing & communications for Visit Indy, a promotional arm. So if sports leagues and teams start boycotting the city, because they don’t want to associate with what they see as a discriminatory law, they can tear it apart. “I certainly can’t endorse something that in principal is contrary to the value or our organization, and mine and my family’s personal values,” says USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel, who is from Indianapolis. “As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities,” Charles Barkley said in a statement.

MORE: What You Need to Know About Indiana’s Controversial Religious Objections Law

This year’s Final Four is projected to generate $70.8 million in direct visitor spending, according to Visit Indy. The 2010 Final Four, won by Duke, brought in $50 million. According to research firm Rockport Analytics, the 2012 Super Bowl contributed nearly $280 million to the local economy and supported nearly 4,700 jobs. An online petition calling on the Big Ten conference to move its championship football game, which contributed $16 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis in 2014, out of the city collected thousands of signatures.

The NCAA, which has some 500 employees at its Indy headquarters, took a notably strong stand against the law. “Anything that could potentially allow for discrimination and works in a way that is inconsistent with our values for inclusion is something we are very concerned about,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told ESPN on Monday. “We have to say, what do we do if this law goes into effect in July, and what’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be.” Pence has done the impossible: Won the NCAA widespread kudos.

This kind of talk has Ballard, the Indy mayor, very concerned. “This is very much a burgeoning convention setting, and sports event place,” says Ballard, who like the Governor is a Republican. “A lot of jobs depend on it, and the hospitality industry is huge here, just because of the sports and the convention business.” The NFL, for example, could move its annual scouting combine out of Indianapolis. “It’s very difficult for us right now,” says Ballard, who agrees that Pence’s timing was terrible. In an executive order released Monday, Ballard called on state lawmakers and the Governor to “expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law.”

“They have to correct this, and they have to correct it quickly,” Ballard tells TIME. “They have to make it very, very clear that discrimination is not acceptable anywhere, and that services and facilities are open to everybody in the state of Indiana.” Without such action, Indiana might find itself out of the game.

Read next: The Debate Over What Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act Is Really About

TIME portfolio

Meet America’s First Video Game Varsity Athletes

The newest route to college is through a video game

Correction appended, March 27, 2015

Parents who think that video games are an academic distraction, take heart: pounding on the controller can now help pay for college.

Last fall, Robert Morris University in Chicago became the first college in the US to make competitive gaming ­ or “e-sports” ­ a varsity sport, and offer athletic scholarships for players. “My parents were always telling me to get off the Xbox,” says Jonathan Lindahl, a freshman e-sports player at Robert Morris. “So I’m really rubbing it in their faces.”

At Robert Morris, video game scholarships can be worth up to half of tuition and housing, or $19,000. What’s more, since the NCAA doesn’t regulate e-sports, they’re not bound by the rules of amateurism. A couple of Robert Morris players, for example, recently played in a semi-pro tournament and each earned around $1,000. Want to get paid as a college athlete? Stay on the Xbox.

Robert Morris spent $100,000 ­and received help from video game sponsors ­ to retrofit a classroom into a full-fledged gaming hub with hi-tech monitors, headsets, and chairs. The players look a bit like fighter pilots, and play League of Legends, a five-on-five battle game popular among college students. The top Robert Morris team has qualified for Sweet 16 of the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), which starts on March 28: traditional sports powers like Michigan, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M are also in the mix. The “Final Four” will be held in Los Angeles in early May. Each member of the winning team will receive $30,000 in scholarship money.

A sure sign that college video games are like traditional sports: one member of the Robert Morris squad, freshman Adrian Ma, 18. left the school in November to join a pro team. “The opportunity was too good to pass up,” says Ma. A second school, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, will offer e-sports scholarships this fall. For gamers, March Madness has indeed arrived.

Read the full story, The Varsity Sport of the Virtual World, in the latest issue of TIME magazine and on TIME.com.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the student in slide 9. His name is Zixing Jie.

TIME NFL

Chris Borland Is the New Model NFL Player

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants
Michael Zagaris—Getty Images Chris Borland #50 of the San Francisco 49ers tackles Odell Beckham Jr.of the New York Giants during the game at Metlife Stadium on November 16, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The 49ers linebacker, who just finished an excellent rookie year and was looking at possible NFL stardom, retires in fear of brain injuries. Is this the new football blueprint?

Chris Borland had at least five more lucrative years in him, maybe more. This was going to be his peak earning period. But he decided the rest of his life was worth more.

Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, just finished a productive rookie year, and was set to take on a bigger role with the team after fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, 30, announced his retirement last week. Willis, bothered by foot injuries, surprised many by leaving the game in his prime. But at least he had a prime. Borland, 24, is also retiring, sacrificing millions to preserve his brain.

It’s a newsworthy decision, but not all that shocking, given the rationale behind it. The brain science becomes more daunting year-by-year: by playing NFL football, you’re risking the quality of your life. A Borland was going to come along at some point: a promising player quitting, before he really gets started.

Is this a bit of a nightmare for the NFL? Sure. The league keeps losing PR battles; Borland’s retirement condemns the game. Yes, four NFL players age 30 or younger have retired during the past week. But don’t expect a flood of players to hand in their helmets. A decade ago, we weren’t even talking about the long-term dangers of concussions. A decade later, a young player staves off the damage. A decade from now? There will be other Borlands. Enough to cripple the league? Doubtful. Many, many decades from now? That’s another story. Fewer young kids are playing tackle football. The trends aren’t good.

Borland, who according to ESPN Stats & Information led the NFL in tackles from Weeks 7-15, when he filled in for Willis as a starter, did the research. He thought he sustained a concussion in training camp, but played through it, because he felt like that’s what he’d have to do to make the team. He called on concussion researchers to get the facts. Borland’s retired, but let’s see if he actually stays on the sidelines. At 24, he can always change his mind. If he follows through on his plan to go back to school and chase a career in sports management, and has a happy, successful life without football … Chris Borland might be the model NFL player, after playing a single season in the NFL.

TIME

Here’s Who Wins March Madness in the Classroom

A complete ranking of the NCAA basketball tournament field by academic success and graduation rates instead of wins and losses

Davidson’s men’s basketball team has won accolades this year for defying expectations on the court, finishing in first place in their inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 after being picked 12th, out of 14 teams, in the preseason poll. The Wildcats run an efficient, aesthetically pleasing offense, a welcome contrast to an otherwise rough college basketball season, where scoring was near all-time lows.

Basketball success is not new to the 1,850 student liberal arts college in North Carolina: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is a former Wildcat. Nor is academic achievement: Woodrow Wilson is another prominent alum. Now, the two have come together: Davidson is the academic champion of the 2015 NCAA tournament.

According to new rankings generated by the New America, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank, for all 68 teams in the tournament–and shared exclusively with TIME — Davidson cuts down the proverbial nets. Here’s how: we matched teams up in the classroom, using the tournament brackets to determine the games. If the on-court bracket results mimicked academic performance, the Final Four would look like this: Davidson wins the South, Maryland comes out of the Midwest, Baylor takes the West and Dayton wins the East. Davidson knocks off Baylor in one national semifinal. Maryland knocks off Dayton in the other semi, with Davidson taking the title game.

The full bracket is below.

 

The formula for New America’s March Madness mimics that of its College Football Playoff rankings released in December (TCU won that title). The base measure is a school’s most recent men’s basketball “Graduation Success Rate,” a figure measured by the NCAA that doesn’t dock schools for having players who transfer or go pro before graduating–as long as those players leave in good academic standing. The higher the school’s graduation success rate, the higher they start out in New America’s rankings. New America, however, did subtract points from schools that graduate men’s basketball players at a much different rate than the overall men’s graduation rate at the school. To compare students to athletes, New America used federal graduation rates, which take a cohort of students from 2004-2007, and measured if they graduated within six years. Even if a school graduated basketball players at higher rates than the overall male student population, the difference was counted as a penalty against schools that have low overall male graduation rates.

One important note: Harvard, the Ivy League champion, was excluded from the rankings because the Ivy League does not report federal graduation rates for athletes. So the University of North Carolina, Harvard’s first round opponent, moves on. Harvard was one of 13 schools, including Davidson, Maryland, Notre Dame, Butler and Dayton, that reported a perfect graduation success rate for basketball players.

Indiana was the easiest out, finishing last in New America’s rankings. Hoosier basketball players graduated at an 8% federal rate, according to the most recent numbers, fare below the overall male student graduation rate of 72%. That discrepancy killed their score. Indiana basketball spokesman J.D. Campbell points out that current coach Tom Crean was hired in April 2008, after the 2004-2007 cohort captured by the federal rate enrolled in the school. Indiana’s men’s basketball team does have a perfect Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA metric that measures the academic eligibility of current players, and Campbell says that every Crean recruit that hasn’t transferred or left early for the NBA has graduated (one of Indiana’s three early entries to the NBA, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic, graduated in three years).

To see how the whole field stacks up, check out these rankings.

Read next: The Simple Free Hack to Watch NCAA March Madness Without a Cable Bill

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TIME College Basketball

College Basketball Has Lost Its Soul

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - VCU v Richmond
Alex Goodlett—Getty Images The Richmond Spiders play the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during a quarterfinal game in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in Brooklyn.

Attendance and ratings are down. Scoring is at historic lows. Arenas are antiseptic. Why is the sport so troubled?

What are we doing here?

It’s Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, just days before the annual “Selection Sunday” that will decide the layout of the NCAA tournament. The Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is hosting the conference tournament quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10, a hoop-centric group of schools whose core geographical imprint stretches from Philadelphia, through Washington, D.C. down to Richmond, Virginia, while hitting a few places in the midwest: Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dayton. Yet the Atlantic 10 hosts its conference tournament in New York City, home to Fordham University—one of the league’s northern outliers and worst basketball teams.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the University of Richmond, two schools separated by five miles in the Virginia capital, are playing a tight, tough game, which VCU will eventually win, 70-67. But the whole thing still feels a bit out of place. The Atlantic 10 moved its tournament to Brooklyn back in 2013 because, more than anything, college athletic conferences have become marketing entities. Let’s bring the show to the big city, baby, no matter the convenience for the “student-athletes,” whose time spent traveling extra miles could be spent, you know, studying.

This rivalry game sparked some electricity. Fans of VCU, which made a surprising run to the Final Four back in 2011, travel well, and as VCU finishes off the Spiders, the place is loud and moderately rocking. Still, the building is only a little more than a third full, according to the official attendance figures. Empty seats dot prime areas behind the basket. Most of the fans are wearing yellow (for VCU) or red (for Richmond), but very few locals seem to be there. The Big Apple hasn’t exactly caught A-10 fever.

Which comes as no shock. Across the country, people seem to be falling out of love with college basketball. Attendance for Division I men’s games has fallen for seven straight seasons, according to the Associated Press. TV ratings for CBS and ESPN are down.

A well-documented drop in scoring, which is near historically low levels, has been blamed for college basketball’s struggles. Ugly play has certainly contributed. Controlling coaches drain the fun and flow out of the game. Players are stronger—and more physical, which tends to hurt, more than help, offense. Technology has made scouting an opponent’s tendencies easier. When you know what your foe is about to do, he’s easier to defend.

These trends have surely contributed to college basketball’s struggles. So have some forces beyond the sport’s control. More than ever, Americans want appointment television, whether it’s a must-see football game or even an international soccer game we can all chirp about on Twitter, or a favorite show on the DVR. We have so many entertainment options: Our investment in a two-hour regular season college basketball game better pay off. Too often, it doesn’t.

In football, the regular season games really matter. In baseball, a fraction of the teams make the post-season, so even the early April games have something at stake. In college basketball, if teams struggle in the regular season, they can earn a March Madness spot by doing well in a conference tournament. Does any one regular season game really matter that much?

True, you can say the same thing about NBA regular season games. But if you like basketball, and can choose between watching the best players in the world in the NBA, or a bunch of college kids throwing up bricks and college coaches calling a million timeouts, and calling for a million fouls at the end of close games… it’s an easy call.

When pitted against football, college hoops is almost helpless. College football is a juggernaut, and college basketball starts its season in mid-November—just as the playoff and bowl chases are coming down the stretch. Into December and through the Super Bowl, the NFL is going strong. Even the NFL off-season overshadows college hoops. This past week, major free agent moves—and in particular, coach Chip Kelly’s casino gambling with the future of the Philadelphia Eagles—stole tons of attention from conference basketball tournaments.

College basketball is in danger of becoming a one-month sport, capturing buzz only during March Madness. The sport’s relevance problem even sparked Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich to propose on SI.com that the start of the regular season be pushed back to mid-December, and the Final Four to take place in early May—to help college basketball escape football’s shadow.

Officials can tinker with the game. But some of the optics of this week’s conference tournaments also suggest that, because schools have been chasing the lushest revenue streams, the sport has also just lost its way. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, for example, Butler, from Indianapolis, and Xavier, from Cincinnati, met in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Why are schools from two Midwestern cities, connected by I-74 through Indiana, playing in New York? As part of something with “East” in the name?

All the conference reshuffling of the past few years destroyed many regional rivalries. Out of this rubble rose a new entity called American Athletic Conference (AAC). ESPN showed highlights from an exciting AAC quarterfinal game between East Carolina and the University of Central Florida that went into overtime. East Carolina won 81-80. The game was played in Hartford, Conn. On TV, the stands looked empty.

College hoops is still thriving in many places. And as we gear up for Sunday night’s selection show, a drab regular season will be forgotten. We’ll fill out our March Madness brackets, root for Cinderella, see if Kentucky can become the first team to finish undefeated in almost 40 years. It’ll be a blast.

But the question is still worth asking: What are we doing here?

Read next: The Case for Sports Gambling in America

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