THE MAJOR COLLEGE BASKETBALL season is barely two weeks old and already it's looking like a long winter in Utah. None of Utah's five Div. I schools - including, for the first time, Southern Utah State - has a winning record to date with the exception of the Weber State Wildcats, who are 3-2 and aren't supposed to be.
Not that the slow starts mean things won't turn around, or that Weber's fast start won't turn around, either. Certainly the University of Utah's sluggishness should be expected to aright, given the Utes' preseason nod to win the Western Athletic Conference. And if BYU's Michael Smith gets good and mad one of these months, the Cougars might be hard to stop; and if Kohn Smith's Aggie-ized Hoosiers catch the vision of the coaches' brand of defense, they may indeed become contenders.The reason it looks like it's going to be a looooong season is this: Apathy in the stands.
Have you seen any of the riveting traditional in-state rivalry games to date? Probably not.
Fans are staying away from the arenas in droves. It's as if they're quarantined.
Enthusiasm is on a par with chess tournaments and bus tours of Des Moines, Iowa.
Prior to last night's Utah-Utah State game in Salt Lake, there had been four intrastate Div. I games. Weber State at Utah State drew less than 8,600 fans in an 11,000-seat arena. Brigham Young at Weber drew 6,932 fans in a 10,500-seat arena. Weber State at Utah drew just more than 10,000 fans in a 15,000-seat arena.
And at Cedar City, for Weber State's first-ever appearance against SUSC, an announced crowd of 4,273 that looked more like 3,500 showed up at the 5,300-seat Centrum. Scalpers have been singing the blues. Their families are home eating beans.
Arena managers are thinking about scheduling reggae rock concerts in the future instead of basketball games between schools from the same supposedly hoops-crazy state.
To think it was only a half-dozen years ago when True Believers Bob Fotheringham and Tom Buxton were lobbying the athletic directors at Utah, Utah State, BYU and Weber State for a Big Four tournament to open the season. They said the public had a right. Now, the possibility of such an affair isn't even worth lobbying.
Who would come?
Something has happened to the good old heydays of Utah college hoops. Maybe it's the Jazz - who sell out with regularity while charging considerably higher prices, playing considerably more games, and starting more than a month earlier. Maybe it's the proliferation of women's sports. Maybe it's the saturation of basketball on TV (211 games on ESPN alone this season, or better than two a day). Maybe it's the lack of promotion by the schools themselves. Maybe it's zone defenses, a clock that's too long, and a 3-point line that's too close.
Maybe it's too many boring coaches.
Whatever it is, it seems to be contagious.
College basketball isn't the in crowd these days.
There are still lots of reasons to go. BYU's Smith may be the best power forward in the country, on the offensive side of the ball. Utah has a potential local phenom in the mold of Danny Vranes in freshman Josh Grant. If Weber State's Rico Washington were playing for, say, North Carolina or Nevada-Las Vegas, he'd be worrying about how to not hire an agent.
Utah State's Reid Newey is a walking, hoisting 3-point clinic; and the new coach at Weber, Dennis Huston, is wry, sarcastic, cynical and glib - in short, a terrific talker/interview. And Southern Utah State, with its smalltown address and big-time attitude, is the season's best joke.
So there are reasons to get excited, not unlike the reasons that got people excited in the past.
But as the seating statistics show - not only have the in-state rivalries been casually attended, but no arena has sold out a game to date, including BYU for UCLA's visit - a ticket to a college basketball game is not the hottest ticket in town. Not in Utah's towns, it isn't.
Probably it's just a stage the sport is going through. But the people in the business have to worry. What if they held a basketball season and nobody came? Or, what if they could draw more for UB40 and not have to worry about won-lost records?