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Friday, March 5, 2004
Updated: March 12, 10:12 AM ET
 



WHICH SPORT HAS THE MOST MEANINGLESS REGULAR SEASON?


Have you ever set there in front of the TV, watching a regular-season game or event, and wondered, at the end: Why did I just throw three hours of my life down the toilet?

Well, so have several members of the Writers' Bloc. In today's WB, they debate which sport has the most meaningless regular season of all.

College basketball | From Kevin Jackson

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll start with two admissions:

1) Although I grew up in a state (Washington) with a college hoop tradition only slightly better than the combined cachet of the Dakotas, I've always been a fan of college basketball. To me, there's no better sight in sports than seeing a full section of Cameron Crazies perform a synchronized leap while some poor, intimidated Heel attempts to inbound the ball a few feet away.

2) The NCAA men's basketball tournament is the most exciting three weeks in sports ... only behind the NFL playoffs, in my book, for pure utter enjoyment.

But the college basketball regular season? It's about as "meaningful" as "The Littlest Groom."

First off, I subscribe to one basic principle: The "meaningfulness" of a regular season is directly proportional to how quickly that season can be immediately erased in the postseason.

And, in the world of college basketball, that is 40 minutes, folks.

Sure, Saint Joseph's and Stanford have had wonderful joyrides over the last four months. But what will an unblemished record buy the Cardinal or the Hawks? A top seed in the tourney ... and, uh, yeah, that's exactly what it's going to buy Duke (three losses) and a team like Mississippi State (two).

No home-court advantage. No first-round bye. No guarantee that they'll get to play a decisive game in their own gym. Nada. (And, yes, those are all the factors that make the one-and-done NCAA tourney so compelling.)

Compare that to baseball (best-of-5, followed by best-of-7), the NBA (best-of-7) and the NHL (best-of-7), where a team can have three off nights and still survive. Sure, the 82-game NBA and NHL seasons might be a bore, but at least seeding and home court actually can mean something.

Sure, the NFL is one-and-done, but remember the best teams there get to take the first round off and lick their wounds. Plus, if you don't think home field means anything in football, go ask Peyton Manning if he agrees.

Think of this, as my esteemed colleague Dan Shanoff points out: Technically, a college basketball team could lose every single regular-season game, win its conference tournament, get the automatic bid to the NCAAs, then win six straight in the Big Dance ... giving you a national champion with a 9-27 record.

So, yes a winless regular season and an undefeated regular season can mean the exact same thing ... nothing!

NHL | From Jeff Merron

The games are about a whole lot more than winning and losing.

Look at the seasons St. Joe's and Stanford are having. St. Joe's can't find a big enough venue in Philly to accommodate all the fans who want to see them -- night after undefeated night. In Philly, and among lots of fans throughout the country, every regular-season game for St. Joe's is meaningful, because in college basketball, an undefeated regular season is a possible -- but rare and remarkable -- feat. The same goes for Stanford.

The truth is self-evident: The games mean something because people care.

Either one loses in an early round in the Big Dance? That doesn't take away from the fun and excitement of their regular seasons. It's disappointing, and maybe a little unfair ... but that's it. The NCAA Tournament is great, at least partially, for the Cinderella stories, the upsets. They can happen. They do happen. They will happen. That doesn't render what comes before meaningless.

On the other hand, good luck finding someone who cares about a midseason NHL game. Oh, it happens once in a while -- when someone is chasing a season or career record or landmark. But it's rare. A few reasons why:

1) October. The NHL season begins at the same time the baseball playoffs begin and at the same time important NFL games are being played. The NHL in October is like Rhode Island during the Presidential primaries -- it just doesn't matter. Possible strike negotiations next fall could make for the most exciting NHL October of all time.

2) April, May, and June. Last season, the NHL playoffs began on April 9, and the Devils didn't hoist the Stanley Cup until June 9. That, for most fans and players, is the real season.

3) Sixteen teams out of 30, the highest percentage of any major sport, make the playoffs. And the fight for home-ice advantage? Give me a break. Hard-core fans may care, but the vast majority -- the rest of us -- don't pay attention until March. If at all.

4) Nobody watches on TV -- test patterns get better ratings. Let's face it -- one of the great things about watching a game is talking about it the next day, reliving it with friends and classmates and co-workers. "Hey, did you see how great the Blue Jackets played against San Jose last night?" That won't even chip the ice at the water cooler, much less break it.

5) Look at the NBA. The pro hoops schedule is also too long, but there's a buzz throughout the regular season. People are talking -- about Kobe-Shaq, about Kobe's 9-40 streak, about Mark Cuban, Spike Lee trash talking, MJ (even when he's not playing), East vs. West -- for lots of reasons, more people seem to find the regular-season mini-dramas to be pretty compelling.

The bottom line? College and pro football, college and pro basketball, Major League Baseball -- our collective interest is fairly high throughout the regular season. The upsets and series sweeps grab headlines. Individual feats grab the attention of even casual fans. Winning streaks keep us watching.

The NHL regular season? It's self-evident: It means nothing because each game means so little to so few. And when all the games are added up at the end, almost nothing's been decided. Give me regular-season college hoops any time.

NBA | From David Schoenfield

Jeff, you deserve a hipcheck into the boards for suggesting the NHL regular season is more meaningless than the NBA's.

First, the NBA has 29 teams compared to the NHL's 30, and since 16 teams make the playoffs in both leagues, the NBA's postseason is actually the easiest to reach of the major sports.

More importantly, the NBA regular season is merely an exhibition prelude to its playoffs. Since there is such a severe difference between the good and the awful teams, we already know who is going to make the playoffs for the most part. Sorry, the fight for the No. 8 seed in the East doesn't excite me, especially when you know that team has no chance in the playoffs.

The NHL, meanwhile, offers a mad scramble just to reach the postseason -- and that's important, because any team can do well in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Anaheim was a No. 7 seed last year and the Ducks beat No. 6-seeded Minnesota to reach the Cup finals.

This year? Both teams are currently out of the playoffs.

What's it mean? NHL regular-season games are more intense, more exciting and more meaningful than the NBA's, where you can actually see the lack of intensity compared to the playoffs.

C'mon ... they're all meaningful | From Patrick Hruby

Sorry, WB, but all of you are wrong. Not misguided. Not misunderstood. Just wrong. W-R-O-N-G.

Wow. I feel better already.

Look, saying that any sport has a meaningless regular season is like claiming that the only part of college worth remembering is graduation day. That goes for reality shows, too. Not that I watch them. But still.

Recall your campus days. The professors that inspired you. The friends that made you laugh. The parties that left you a vomiting wreck. Is it really the diploma that counts? Or is it the four years of life-shaping experience?

(Granted, it's probably five or six years for some of you. My sincerest apologies).

A wise man -- probably the Dalai Lama; possibly Bill Walton -- once noted that happiness isn't a destination. It's a journey. The same goes for sports.

Talk to retired athletes. They miss the winning, sure, and the paychecks even more. But you know what they miss most? The thrill of competing. The camaraderie of the locker room. The simple joy of playing a kid's game well into adulthood.

Again, consider your own life. Reflect on your work, your family. Day in and day out, little things seem insignificant. But add them up. Compound them over time. Taken together, they mean so much more than any one milestone, any championship trophy.

Shift back to sports. For fans and even us cynical scribes, the regular season is a treasure trove of small pleasures. Trades, injuries, streaks, showdowns.

Locker-room drama to shame "Playmakers." Pick up the morning paper. There's more to follow than pennant races and playoff pushes.

To put it another way: If you really find the regular season of a sport boring and meaningless -- well, maybe you don't really give a damn about that sport in the first place. Which is fine. But don't pretend otherwise. Because if you're actually interested in the end result -- the Stanley Cup, the NCAA Tourney, whatever -- you should care even more about the games that precede it.

After all, where do you think title teams are formed?

In the first round of the playoffs? Or over a period of months and years?

The regular season is where teams first come together and fall apart, where players initially rise and sink. If it wasn't, we could skip the formalities and sweep our preseason favorites straight into the playoffs. A Bucs-Colts Super Bowl would have been something else, huh? And what about a Final Four featuring Kansas and Arizona -- they're clearly the best teams in the Big 12 and the Pac-10, right?

So go ahead and whine. Moan that the journey isn't relevant. That an October NHL contest isn't worth your time. That St. Joe's perfect record isn't worth the scoresheet it's printed on. You might be right. And while you're at it, don't forget to straighten that diploma on your wall.

Me? I'll be watching tonight's Celtics-Wizards contest. With pleasure, for the most part, except when Juan Dixon hoists another ill-advised jumper.

The way I see it, the play is still the thing.