While (thankfully) the rates of infection nationally are trending downward, ever so slightly, and while vaccinations are under way, the COVID-19 coronavirus is still dangerous and still wreaking havoc. People are still dying. People are still getting long-term lung, brain, and heart conditions from this thing.
Programs are still suspending operations and postponing games. In CUSA, the same backlog of cancelled/postponed games that so bothered football fans is slowly building. The league says it will prioritize the games that have an impact on seeding first and then figure out what makes sense for the rest. In practice this means travel.
The league has a difficult challenge in running this league. There are no obvious star-programs like the Mountain West or something in football. 1 There are no easy regional ties like the old Big East in basketball, where something like a shared culture made a conference tournament more of a celebration and a cultural moment than an exercise in logistics. In this space, we have written about the difficulty in unifying disparate, spread-out programs under one common banner. What, exactly is a CUSA?
In practice the CUSA slogan is “We have the other teams!” and that does not make anyone feel better. The league’s vocal fanbase 2 decry this and complain that the league office is lame, not doing anything for their program, and that there should be some realignment.
Understanding the tough situation the office is in, as I do, means that I do not have so hot of a sport opinion. I do think, however, that the reactive nature of the league office makes it an easy target for such criticisms. If Judy McLeod is to be clearly blamed for something, it is not getting ahead of the criticism. Being clear and transparent with the challenges makes everyone feel better. Being reactive and playing it close, makes people suspicious and conspiratorial.
So here we are coming to the end of the season and it would be a good time to discuss the implications of all events on the conference tournament and crowning a champion.
What happens if the tournament is cancelled?
Last year it made sense to be reactive. Everyone throughout the world was reacting to the Coronavirus and it made sense to simply crown the regular season champ and be done with it all. This year? Well, we have known the possibility ahead of time. Presumably the champion will be the regular season one but that was not stated up front. Similarly, the division format was announced December 30, just before the start of the conference season. It smacks of reaction or making it up on the fly.
What happens if one tournament game is postponed?
No one knows. To be fair, no one knows anywhere. There are protocols being put in place for the Big Tournament in Indiana, and the women’s tournament in San Antonio, but how those translate to the league tournament are unclear.
Should this even be happening?
Eh. I do not know. If ever there was a year for keeping the tournament field small, it sure seems like this is a good candidate. More people = more problems and risk. Currently, 12 of 14 teams are going to the tournament and six of those teams will immediately leave after one game. Cutting that in half and doing say, the top three in each division would get you a nice matchup. I would go this way:
- UAB and WKU start with byes
- UNT vs CLT/Marshall
- Tech vs ODU
- Re-seed based on winning percentage and lower seed taking on UAB
Five games is good. We’d still have the problem of a team arriving then immediately leaving, but there would be fewer interactions. Fewer teams there needing testing, eating, going out, talking with a cousin, and what have you. This is the way.
What happens if games are not made up?
This is where the title of this post comes in. Given that the season has played out with many compromises, we can only expect a compromised champion. UAB has not played NT and that is presumably the top of the list in the make-up games. But what if NT drops their matchups to WKU and Marshall in coming weeks? Why even play that if NT drops down to the Rice/UTSA levels? What happens if WKU/ODU do have to make up games during that time and they get beat up, or get a guy hurt and then there is some inequality in rest time leading into the tournament?
What is the appropriate way to feel?
There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief when enjoying sports. In general, if you keep your enjoyment level at “I enjoy the sporting competition of dedicated athletes” and “I enjoy watching organizations compete long term” that is fine. When you peel back the layers a bit, or stare too long you start to see the wires. The players are compensated, sure, but not to the level deserving athletes abroad are getting. They are competing for the shirt, the school, the program, but there is nothing obviously more special about the University of School Tech at City than the Town Mascots of a professional league other than that there is more brad association built up in the former.
Collegiate sports are unique to America — at least at this level. Just as you can watch CoEd teams compete, at some point the devotion to it outweighs reason. Same with college basketball. At a certain point we can only criticize the athletes so much. The rest should be reserved for the people that are compensated fairly for their performance.
Enjoy the quality basketball on display, and enjoy however the league decides to crown a champion, while knowing that is is an especially imperfect method of doing so this year.