A Little Early to the Family Gathering?

Wait a minute. Is it 2022 yet? I know that this country is currently pulled out of the Thanksgiving dinner malaise and thrusted into the frenzy of holiday shopping. In the world of college hoops, though, there's a bit of a post-New Year's taste out there.

January is the time where the slog of conference play begins. Over a two-month stretch, familiar foes get re-acquainted, delivering blow after blow as they jockey for a place atop the league standings. But the New Year of a season's schedule doesn't have exclusive rights to intra-league competition. I'm not sure how long conferences have taken some time in December to tally a number in the subset of their overall record (especially when it comes to mid-major and smaller leagues), but the practice appears to be more noticeable in 2021.

A few years ago, the Big Ten started a new way of thinking. The conference had been a stickler for scheduling. They never played league football games before a specific week. Basketball teams didn't start playing their in-league schedule until around the turn of the year. But things change with the times. There's a rarer occasion of the earlier-than-usual gridiron matchup (take this past season, when Minnesota hosted Ohio State for Week 1. And in December 2017, a new tradition got underway.

With the influx of conference realignment, the league got to a bit of a "critical mass" point. To relieve that tension, the Big Ten decided to set a couple December tilts for each conference foe. It was a notable shift for a group of schools set on tradition. This weekend, the (mostly) midwestern-based league revved up the fifth year of this trend. It's a strange sidebar having Michigan, Minnesota, Purdue, Iowa, and so on face each other, only to pick up a few more non-conference opponents before digging in for real. But that strange feeling appears to be spreading roots.

This past weekend, I immersed myself in college football's Championship Weekend. However, I admit that I flipped the channel a couple of times to catch a wee bit of the Syracuse/Florida State matchup ... on the hardwood. I found it a little odd that these two would be playing the first weekend of December. I also raised my eyebrows when seeing that USC's top-20 squad was heading to Pullman for a showdown with Washington State. Even though the comfort level is growing with the Big Ten's December conference detour, seeing other Power leagues get into the act is still jarring. Is this the beginning of the end of the routine?

Off the back of Oklahoma and Texas shunning the Big XII, conferences growth spurts have begun once again. The SEC will reach that golden "super" number of 16 schools once the Sooners and Longhorns join the ranks. The aforementioned Big XII will finally get back to their original numeric intent. Conglomerates such as the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and the AAC are filling their stockade back up with teams from other leagues (including each other's). We may see a mid-December weekend full of conference tilts.

The Horizon (12 teams), Metro Atlantic (11 teams), Big Sky (11 teams), and Missouri Valley (10 teams) already have conference records as of December 7th. Depending on how many associations can find their way to the 14- or 16-team threshold, I think it's only a matter of time before more hoops cooperatives take part in the practice while the elves are still stocking presents at the North Pole. Heck, the number of marquee matchups that January and February bring may have to be spread out with the new round of realignment.

Can you imagine a first round of Rivalry Week leading up to the Christmas break? How's that for love, peace, and goodwill toward your fellow baller?

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