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Fri, 18 Nov 2011 03:52 PM EST

Now that the NBA lockout has all but cancelled the entire 2011-2012 pro season, basketball fans are going back to college, college basketball, that is. Basketball odds

College basketball used to be a lot of fun, especially in March. Compared to more serious events such as college and pro football, the NBA, Major League Baseball, watching college hoops was always a good time.

Granted, there were a number of years where the game gradually sunk deeper and deeper into waywardness. There were a number of scandals, and star players turned into transient properties, just passing through on their way to the NBA, never hanging around long enough to develop a bond with the fans. For a time, the whole sport seemed to be tanking, flushing it’s credibility with fans right down the drain. Basketball lines

ut now, after some rough years and with a little help from the NBA lockout, college basketball is again in the spotlight. And not looking too bad, considering the lack of alternatives.

The college game still has some Big Issues, not the least of which are cheating, hypocrisy and a corrosive cult-of-the-coach mentality, among others. But the 2011-12 season is college hoops’ big opportunity to regain its good graces in the realm of American sports.

One reason for the excitement is the return of some star power talent on the floor. Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller of North Carolina, Jared Sullinger of Ohio State and Terrence Jones of Kentucky have all said no to the NBA draft and gone back to school.

The return of those players helped ensure that the Tar Heels, Buckeyes and Wildcats all would be better teams than they were last season.

And there have already been some gripping games: the Carrier Classic brought together President Barack Obama, thousands of servicemen and women and two high-profile programs for a visually stunning game on an aircraft carrier. The event was a short yet welcome escape from the Penn State scandal that was casting a pall over all of college athletics.

Then the Champions Classic in Madison Square Garden had Mike Krzyzewski breaking Bob Knight’s all-time men’s Division I victories record with Knight in the house, a perfect storm that made for great TV.

And looking forward, there are still lots of exciting games to come.

Coming up next, the Maui Invitational features its usual excellent field, headlined by Duke and Memphis.

Then there are two huge December non-conference games in Lexington: North Carolina at Kentucky on Dec. 3, and Louisville at Kentucky on New Year’s Eve.

The Heels-‘Cats game will feature about eight first-round NBA draft picks. You won’t see more talent in one place all season.

And you won’t see more bad blood in one place all season than Kentucky-Louisville. It is all-consuming and all-year-round in a bedrock basketball state that has no pro sports. This is the most passionate rivalry in the college arena.

That rivalry has never been more contentious between the head coaches than it is now. Rick Pitino and John Calipari hate each other, pure and simple. Calipari took shots at Louisville before the season, and Pitino responded in kind. Skip any other New Years’ Eve plans; you will want to be parked in front of this game.

The real fun begins in January with conference play. By February, when football finally leaves the stage – and if the NBA remains locked out – college basketball will literally be the only game in town.

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