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Original Issue

'Tis the Season

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College basketball is back in all its charming splendor: historic venues, must-see matchups and unpredictable outcomes—just ask the Mastodons

COLLEGE BASKETBALL is like that last gift under the tree—you didn't notice it behind the gaudy box of NFL, and you had to push aside those glitzy NBA and college bowl packages just to get to it. But then you unwrapped it, and it's just delightful. Division I hoops may be our last truly charming major sport.

College football's defending national champion is Alabama, an NFL farm team led by a coach, Nick Saban, who said on Nov. 9 that he didn't know the day before had been Election Day. College basketball's defending national champion—and current No. 1—is Villanova, a school so small it does not even have an FBS football team.

In the season's first month, Wildcats stars Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins reminded us how great they are. They did so in a quintessential college basketball way: by beating traditional Big Ten power Purdue on the road, and then by trouncing an Ivy League school, Penn, at the lovely old hoops church in Philly, the Palestra. College basketball still has the feel of a neighborhood pickup game: It doesn't matter where you're from or what you wear; you just have to be ready to play.

This explains the scene in Fort Wayne, Ind., on Nov. 22. The Indiana University--Purdue University Fort Wayne Mastodons (the Mastodons!) jumped out to a 13--3 lead over Indiana. The Hoosiers soon found their energy, but Fort Wayne found something better: the chance to make a lifetime memory. The Mastodons beat Indiana 71--68 in overtime. It was the kind of result that made the casual fan think perhaps Indiana is not that good, but the beauty is that Indiana is that good. The No. 9 Hoosiers have already beaten Kansas and North Carolina, and they could win the national title.

College basketball remains unpredictable, on any given night, over five months, except for ... well ... Duke. The sport's designated villain, disliked for being a little too good at everything, has not looked like the best team, but also is clearly the best team.

Let us explain. The Blue Devils began the season No. 1 in the country, then lost to Kansas by two points before beating a young, wobbly Michigan State team by nine at home. Neither result sounds all that impressive until you realize that Duke was playing with its B team. Highly touted 6'10" freshman forward Harry Giles, a sure NBA lottery pick, has not played yet. Fellow freshman forward and future lottery pick Jayson Tatum missed Duke's first eight games. So did 6'11" freshman center (and possible first-rounder) Marques Bolden.

Duke, now ranked No. 5, could probably split into two teams and send both to the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile, Michigan State is just hoping to send one to the tournament, for the 20th consecutive year. Tom Izzo has one of his most talented teams—superathletic 6'7" freshman swingman Miles Bridges may injure his head on a scoreboard this season—but the Spartans are young, and thin up front. They almost lost to Florida Gulf Coast, they have looked like a mess, and Izzo is blaming himself. In other words, it's like the beginning of every Michigan State season. Talk to us in March.

Izzo can complain that his schedule is too hard, but he knows that those challenging early schedules have often taught his teams lessons they apply in the NCAA tournament. This is why events like the annual Champions Classic (which featured MSU, Duke, Kansas and Kentucky) and the Big Ten--ACC Challenge are good for everybody. Syracuse may not be happy now that it got blown out at Wisconsin, but would beating a lousy team at home in November help it more in March?

Last year's top freshman, Ben Simmons, missed the NCAA tournament. This year's top freshman, Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, is in danger of doing the same. Meanwhile, Purdue's Caleb (Biggie) Swanigan looks like the ultimate college player: talented enough to play in the NBA someday but not good enough to bolt after one season. Swanigan, a sophomore, should be in the conversation for National Player of the Year.

That is: men's Player of the Year. College basketball, perhaps our most progressive major sport, is also the only one with a women's game that easily slides into a conversation about the men. Even a casual hoops fan knows about Tennessee's history and UConn's perpetual greatness, and this winter you can expect a few highlights from 5'11" Baylor senior forward Nina Davis or 6'3" Notre Dame junior forward Brianna Turner to embed themselves in your brain. College basketball is the gift that keeps on giving.

1. Dekeiya Cohen (1) and Baylor handed Schaquilla Nunn and Tennessee the Lady Vols' worst-ever home loss, 88--66.

2. UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball had 14 points and seven assists in the Bruins' 97--92 upset of Isaiah Briscoe and Kentucky.

3. Not everyone hates the Blue Devils.

4. Villanova 82, Penn 57, at the Palestra.

1. Indiana coach Tom Crean was pumped to see his Hoosiers topple then No. 3 North Carolina.

2. Villanova's Mikal Bridges before defeating Penn on Nov. 29.

3. Sophomore forward Ethan Happ and Wisconsin beat Oklahoma 90--70 and have what it takes to reach a third Final Four in four seasons.