(This piece originally appeared on NBCOlympics.com on August 8, 2012.)
These are dark times for college basketball aficionados. The start of the season is more than three months away, and even hardcore hoops fans can admit that March seems like a distant memory.
Have no fear, bracketologists, handball is here. The sport is exciting, fast-paced, and now in the final week of the Olympic tournament, every game becomes crucial. Reminds us of another prominent event: the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
1. Sudden Death – With the start of knockout-round play, it’s single-elimination style just like the NCAA Tournament. Look for handball Cinderellas like Tunisia to knock a strong Croatian team into a long, four-year wait until the next Olympics in the late game Tuesday.
2. Tight, physical defense – The importance lock-down defense is more similar to college basketball than to the NBA regular season. Even the short Korean team got physical, getting hands on shots and climbing taller players like trees. And the crashing of bodies for rebounds reminds us of the ruthless interior play of Big East teams.
3. Don’t know the names? Doesn’t matter – No one will blame you for not knowing the starting lineup of Syracuse or Iceland, but players fit into archetypes, like Ivan Cupic of Croatia. One of the shortest guys on the court, Cupic weaves through defenses to drive opponents batty — like that pesky, quick-shooting guard your team can’t stop. As one of the top goal-scorers, his post-goal fist pumps are a gut-punch to opposing goalkeepers.
4. A college atmosphere with international flair – It’s all neutral for the knockout round since the Brits are eliminated. But fans have gathered from across Europe to give the matches a college basketball feel, especially the loud, chanting Hungarian fans who drape the Copper Box in green and red.There’s even schadenfreude: Denmark fans in the crowd rooting for Korea to defeat their European rivals. Big tournaments create strange international bedfellows.
5. Love for the ladies – While the focus may be on the men’s tournament, don’t forget the women’s games happening on opposite days. The games have been entertaining and a demonstration of parity: Even Denmark, which won three straight Gold medals from 1996 through 2004, missed the knockout round with a 1-4 record.
6. More eyeballs, higher volume – Just like college basketball teams usually move from smaller gyms to NBA arenas in March, so will handball teams. For the men’s knockout round and the women’s final four the games shift from the cozy 5,000-seat Copper Box to the 12,000-seat Basketball Arena. If the cheers from crazed Hungarians didn’t destroy your ears during the preliminary round, the decibel level is about to double.
7. The gym teacher X-factor – Basketball fans know that gym teacher James Naismith invented the game to keep students in shape during winter. Handball may have its origins in ancient Rome and Greece, but Denmark’s Holger Nielsen created the first set of rules in 1904 and Germany’s Karl Schelenz developed the modern rules 15 years later. One guess at what their occupations were.
8. Watch early, watch often – One of the best aspects of being at the NCAA tournament and Olympic handball tournaments is watching games all day long, at the stadium or a screen. All of the games are streaming live at NBCOlympics.com. Just make sure to hide the video box from your boss, March Madness-style.