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Thanksgiving Week Is the Event College Basketball Needs

The NBA has Christmas, the NFL has Thanksgiving Day, college football has New Year’s Day; now, college hoops has a template for what could be its “thing”—a week loaded with games that inspires March Madness levels of delirium

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The most absurd week ever of regular-season college basketball came to a close Sunday night/early Monday morning when no. 4 Michigan State held no. 9 North Carolina to 45 points, no. 16 Texas A&M blew out no. 10 USC in Los Angeles, and no. 1 Duke erased a 17-point second-half deficit to beat no. 7 Florida. There’s no way of fact-checking whether this was actually the most absurd regular-season week in college basketball history, of course, but I don’t think we need to bother. Shoot, these past seven days have been so wild that the “regular season” qualifier might not even be necessary. Wichita State’s comeback to beat Cal in the first round of the Maui Invitational happened last Monday, yet I could easily be convinced that it took place a decade ago because of all that’s transpired since.

News broke that Michael Porter Jr., who was the nation’s top recruit and a potential no. 1 NBA draft pick, will likely sit out the rest of season. (Or maybe not!) Meanwhile, Arizona looked every bit the part of a national title contender … until the Wildcats squirted out three turds in the Battle 4 Atlantis, suggesting that maybe they, too, have decided to sit out the rest of the season. Alabama played Minnesota three-on-five (and almost won!), Chaminade blew out Cal, Portland State led Duke at halftime, and the Cayman Islands Classic gave us all hope that we could start our own Thanksgiving week tournaments if we really wanted to. And that’s to say nothing of Duke’s overtime win over Texas, Florida’s double-overtime win over Gonzaga, Arizona State hanging 102 on Xavier, Notre Dame’s thrilling win over Wichita State in the Maui Invitational title game, Trae Young dropping 43 on Oregon, Oliver Tot breaking up a 19 trillion with a game-winning half-court buzzer beater, Buzz Cut Brad taking four charges against UCLA the day after his shoulder popped out of its socket, or Dan Dakich roasting Jeff Goodman on-air because Goodman had the audacity to suggest Chris Holtmann might be uncomfortable coaching against his former team less than six months after he left it.

Crazy stuff happens during every week of every college basketball season, but these past seven days have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It felt like what you’d get if you took March Madness and put it in a pressure cooker, added a loser’s bracket, only let in teams who were still trying to figure out their identities, and held most of the games at exotic locations (or in Portland). And that leaves me with one burning question: What do I need to do to make sure this happens every year for the rest of eternity?

In the introduction to my latest edition of the most powerful power rankings in college basketball, I briefly discussed how the sport needs a thing other than March Madness. Every other major sport in America has a (mostly) unified Opening Day/Night, while each league “owns” specific holidays during their regular seasons—Christmas belongs to the NBA, all the summer holidays are MLB’s, the NFL gets Thanksgiving, the NHL’s Winter Classic has started cutting into college football’s stronghold on New Year’s Day, and college football kicks off its new season on Labor Day weekend. But what’s college basketball’s holiday? The closest thing we have is starting new seasons around Veterans Day, but that’s really more a day of observance than a holiday that sports traditions can be built around, which explains why the start of a new college basketball season almost always feels underwhelming.

The sport has long been in need of some sort of thing that makes a grand announcement to casual fans that a new season is here; something much bigger than the Champions Classic, that’s widespread enough to unify the nation but also has the cachet to lure in casual fans. At long last, Thanksgiving week has stepped up.

I’m not just talking about Nike’s PK80 Invitational, either, which was every bit as awesome as I had hoped it would be, even if the repeated claim that it was “the best college basketball tournament ever” was among the most egregious pieces of propaganda I’ve ever heard. (Call me crazy but I’m inclined to argue that the NCAA tournament is a slightly bigger deal than a November “tournament” with two champions.) PK80 was just the final piece of the puzzle. It was what pushed Thanksgiving week (or “Feast Week,” as ESPN calls it) over the edge, creating a sense of joyful delirium and transforming it from just a week that had a few good games into that elusive thing.

This is a crucial distinction. Feast Week has always featured a bunch of good games, or at least it has ever since marquee tournaments other than the Maui Invitational have emerged (like the preseason NIT and the Battle 4 Atlantis). But it’s always felt like the tournaments were independent of one another instead of parts of a grander plan—adding the PK80 to the Feast Week lineup somehow brought it all together, though.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but every other year I found myself just picking and choosing games to watch during Feast Week. A balance had to be struck between spending time with my family during Thanksgiving break and watching a ton of basketball, and the compromise I always seemed to settle on was only watching the games in the Maui Invitational or Battle 4 Atlantis that mattered and maybe a handful of others. This year, though, there were so many games that I felt myself succumb to some sort of inertia, where watching so much college basketball made me want to watch even more college basketball. I was glued to the TV for games I never would have cared about in any other year (like Butler vs. Portland State or Marquette vs. LSU) because I felt like something huge was happening across the entire college basketball landscape and I didn’t want to miss a moment. I shit you not: I did not take a single step outside of my parents’ house on Thanksgiving Day. I celebrated Thanksgiving like the Founding Fathers intended: by waking up, walking straight to the couch, and only getting up to go to the kitchen and stuff my face. There was no compromise with the family—I made it clear that I was choosing basketball over everything else and that this would be our new Thanksgiving tradition moving forward.

This is the template. This is how college basketball establishes its thing. Not by trying to own Thanksgiving Day—that’s a fight the NFL won decades ago—but by owning the entire week. I used to think we had too many Thanksgiving tournaments, but now I think we need even more. I want all 351 Division I teams to be forced to play three games in three days during Feast Week. I want to blow this wide open so that the Monday through Sunday of Thanksgiving week is just a relentless onslaught of great games, to the point that everything blends together and my brain goes numb. That’s exactly what happens to me during the first four days of every NCAA tournament and, for the first time, it’s what happened this year during Thanksgiving week. It’s an incredible experience that can only happen with college basketball, which is why the powers that be would have to be crazy to not capitalize on the opportunity in front of them.

This is why Nike has no choice but to make the PK80 an annual event. I don’t care what it takes. They need to just do it. Under Armour should also join the party with their own tournament in Baltimore, Adidas should host a tournament in a federal prison, and Russell Athletic can give a trophy to whoever wins Georgia Tech’s intrasquad scrimmage. All I know is that we, as a college basketball community, have struck gold. We’ve finally got our thing and we can’t afford to go back to the old way now. I also know that I am absolutely exhausted from it all and need to take a few days off to recover.

What’s that? The ACC–Big Ten Challenge starts Monday?

Screw it. I’ll sleep when I’m dead. LET THE FEASTING CONTINUE.