Those of us who are also fans of the New York Metropolitans vividly recall the final game of the 2007 regular season. The Mets were in the throes of their historic collapse (historic at least until the Red Sox last season) but still had a chance on the last Sunday, with Tom Glavine taking the mound against the lowly Marlins (20 games under .500), to at least force a one-game playoff. Glavine went out and gave up 7 runs in the first inning, including plunking the opposing pitcher with the bases loaded, and the Mets’ season was effectively over. In the postgame interview, Glavine declared himself “disappointed” but “not devastated” at the outcome. And he was unanimously ripped by Met fans and talking heads for it.
Which brings me to this special Syracuse basketball season. There has been a lot of conversation online and on air around the question of whether this season should be considered a “bust” if SU does not make the Final Four. I’ve put in my few cents over on the TNIAAM board but want to lay it out a bit more thoroughly here. (After all, what are we paying our web host for if not to be able to spew our opinions out onto the internet on our own terms?)
So here’s the plain truth. If SU is eliminated from the NCAAs prior to the Final Four, this season is still a success. How can it not be? They tied for the most-ever Big East regular season wins. They went 30-1. They were undefeated at home. They’ve been ranked in the top 5 all year. This is by any measure the best regular season in Syracuse basketball history. SUCCESS. This is a SUCCESSFUL SEASON. Point blank period.
This is not to say that I won’t be disappointed if they don’t make it to New Orleans. I most certainly will. Teams with a legitimate chance to win a title don’t come through Central New York every year, and I hope and pray with all the fervor I can muster that these guys will make the most of this opportunity. But what makes the NCAA Tournament better than any other postseason event in the sports landscape is its inherent unpredictability. Upsets. Cinderellas. A lucky half-court heave or two. It happens to a couple great teams every year. Heck, last year there were no #1 seeds (or #2 seeds) in the Final Four. It happens. You run into a team that is hot, or gets the right bounces, and things just don’t go your way, and suddenly your season is over. One substandard game that ends in a loss would not negate everything that this team has accomplished. I think it’s absurd to even suggest it. It shows an astounding lack of perspective.
Plus, consider the competition. SU has played some tough foes this year but have not yet tested themselves against anyone in the “2nd elite tier”: Kansas, Duke, UNC, Michigan State, Ohio State, Missouri — i.e. the other #1 and the #2 seeds. The best teams they’ve played are Georgetown and Marquette, and they beat both, but both were close games that they could have lost if one or two shots had gone the other way. The way I look at it, any team seeded 1-4 should be able to beat any other team seeded 1-4. Once you get to the Sweet 16, the talent and skill levels are pretty close.
Part of the reason this debate runs so hot, I think, is because of the various terms used. SU hypothetically falling short of the Final Four has at times been described by various opinionators as all of the following: disappointing, devastating, the season is a bust, the season is a complete failure. Some folks are using these terms interchangeably, or slyly substituting one for the other to make their point. But to me these form a clear gradation of judgment. Each one is more awful than the next. And to say (as I do) that I won’t consider the season a failure if they fall short of the semifinals doesn’t mean that I won’t be sorely disappointed. On the contrary, I would certainly be disappointed if they don’t make the Final Four, because they have such a good chance and who knows when the next chance will be. But I won’t be devastated, because I know that these things can happen. I think I probably will be devastated if they lose in the 2nd round. (Presumably they won’t lose in the 1-16 matchup. Presumably.) But even then, I won’t label the season a “bust” or a “failure”. The sports talk hype machine worships championships, and that makes sense for the NBA, MLB, etc. with their best-of-seven series which are designed in favor of the superior team. But when it comes to college basketball and its single-elimination format, that’s incredibly shallow thinking and it does a disservice to the (amateur!) athletes who play the games. Regular-season accomplishments are still a big deal in this sport. The level of sustained excellence that SU has attained this season is mind-blowing, and it should not and will not be rendered meaningless if they come up short of their ultimate goal. No matter how much it may sting.