“The reason sport is attractive to many of the general public is that it’s filled with reversals. What you think may happen doesn’t happen. A champion is beaten, an unknown becomes a champion.” – Roger Bannister
This One Is Free
It has become something of a tradition for me to write one installment of the commentary on one non-game-day during the tournament. Typically, it’s precipitated by some topic or trend or happenstance about which I simply cannot resist launching into a self-indulgent rant.
So, I am sitting here on the off night between the men’s national semifinals and the championship game. The women’s championship game is on my TV. My wonderful wife is cooking supper, and I’m cruising Twitter, reading the buzz about this year’s tournament. A recurring theme I’m seeing in the Twitter-verse is the downplaying or de-legitimizing of Gonzaga’s tournament success, and of course, being the Zags fan that I am, this is all the incentive that I needed.
While I realize the people I am talking to in the diatribe that follows will likely never read it, I still find some measure of catharsis in writing it. And since you are my captive audience, fair minions, you are the lucky winners of the Jeff Little’s Lecture Lottery. Here is your freebie for this year. You’re welcome.
As is always the case in the realm of sports fandom, the winners do the winning, and the losers do the whining. Here is a sampling of the gems I saw floating around on Twitter, the reasons why Gonzaga shouldn’t really be taken seriously, even though they will play for the national championship tomorrow night. (Editor’s Note: Even though I’m surrounding each of these in quotation marks, they are not always direct quotes. I will paraphrase in many cases, mainly because I am too lazy to go back to Twitter and look everything up.)
- “Gonzaga had the easiest road to the championship game. They never had to play a seed higher than 4.” (16, 8, 4, 11, 7)
- “Gonzaga hasn’t beaten a single team ranked in the Top 10 the entire season.”
- “Gonzaga plays in a weak conference and they were rewarded with the #1 seed in the weakest region. They haven’t played anyone all year.”
- “Gonzaga only beat West Virginia because of the refs gave them the game.”
- “Even if Gonzaga beats North Carolina, it means nothing, because UNC’s star point guard is playing on two bad ankles.”
- And my absolute personal favorite, “Gonzaga [is a bad team] because they lost to BYU.”
OK, boys and girls, it is high time for a not-so-quick lesson in the nature of sports. Over the course of this discussion, I shall attempt to either directly or indirectly address each of the criticisms above, and perhaps a few others not expressed but implied.
- It’s Not A Beauty Contest – Polls are just that – polls. They are based on opinions, not objective outcomes such as wins, losses, and other hard statistics. I realize that there exist in our world certain activities that are referred to as “sports” but are more like beauty contests where the winners are determined by judges who vote – diving, gymnastics, figure skating, and the like. I do not wish to disparage any of those activities – they require incredible skills that I do not possess, but to me, they are in a different category from what I will call the “hard sports”. By hard I don’t mean in terms of difficulty or skill required to be successful, but rather in terms of soft versus hard in the way winners are determined. In soft sports, winners are determined by votes, and thus the outcome is highly subjective. In hard sports, winners are determined according to points scored in a well-defined framework of predetermined rules. While people from the amateur to the expert can and will argue ad infinitum about and vote upon who the best teams are in hard sports, the winners and ultimate champions (with the possible exception of College Football, a topic about which you don’t want to get me started) are not determined by these votes, but rather by results on the field of play. There a million ways to rank teams in any hard sport, from the highly subjective such as opinion polling of coaches and sports writers, to the more objective such as computerized advanced metrics, but ultimately, in hard sports, Bill “The Tuna” Parcells’ mantra rings true: “You are who your record says you are.” In any sport that features an end-of-season tournament of any form, whether it’s a single elimination tournament such as March Madness or the NFL playoffs, or a series-based, multiple-loss format such Major League Baseball or the NBA, it doesn’t matter WHOM you play. It only matters that you WIN. Winning provides all the legitimacy that is required of a champion.
- You Don’t Have To Beat Everyone – The most hysterical of the aforementioned criticisms are the ones that attempt to either disparage Gonzaga’s 37 wins (the most of any team in the country, by the way) as unimpressive, or inflate their one loss as the nuclear bomb that destroys the value of all 37 of those wins. Now, had that one loss come in the post-season tournament, then it certainly would end the season and, in that way, be a bigger loss than any that may have occurred in the regular season. But this is sports 101, folks. The regular season serves as a qualifier for the post-season tournament. This is the way of all hard sports, granted that there are variations in how the qualifying works. At the professional level, qualification for post-season play tends to depend on wins and losses only, and that is the method I personally prefer. At the college level, qualification for post-season play is a mixture between actual performance as measured by wins and losses and the beauty contest which is the process by which invitations are extended to participating teams. I would love for the beauty contest element to be removed from the equation in college sports, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Nevertheless, again with the exception of College Football, which I sort of toss out as the black sheep of the sports family because of the utterly nonsensical way the champion is determined, in all hard sports at any level, it is not necessary to go undefeated to ultimately win the championship. But, let’s take this a step further. It is also not required that you beat every other team in existence to prove the legitimacy of your championship. It is not even required that you beat every other team who qualifies for post-season play. It is not a round-robin system. You don’t even have to beat the “best” team. You just have to beat the teams you are required to play. The argument that goes, “Well, they didn’t even have to play team X, and if they had, they would not even be playing in the championship game,” is utter nonsense and completely irrelevant. It is not demanded of ANY TEAM, EVER that they beat the one team YOU think they can’t overcome. The tournament framework is set up according to whatever the system is, and then each team’s task is simply to win the games presented to them. Teams have zero control over whom they play. All they can do is win and advance. That being said…
- It IS About Match Ups – Of course it is true that if the tournament bracket or framework is oriented differently, it will lead to a different outcome. That’s a given, and it is true at any level of sport, professional or amateur. It is a big reason why professional teams jockey for playoff positioning at the end of their regular seasons, because who you face in the playoffs matters, of course. As fans, we love to play the what-if game, but the what-if game is not what determines the eventual champion. Certain teams create match up problems for certain other teams, and whether a team faces its nemesis in match up terms is, without doubt, a critical factor in how far it is able to advance. No workable system could be conceived in which a team would have to prove itself against every possible opponent in order to emerge as champion. In March Madness, the champion is the team that can win six consecutive games against the opponents with which it is presented. This is true of all 64 teams entering the competition. You can argue all you want about the ease or the difficulty of the match ups (and honestly, that’s part of the fun of it as a fan), and indeed I have my own issues with the committee’s selection process. I do think it is flawed in many ways. BUT, that in no way can be used as an argument to somehow de-legitimize a team’s championship. If you win the tournament, you are the legitimate champion. That’s what winning the tournament means. It means you are champion.
- The Best Team Does Not Always Win – Winning the tournament does not necessarily mean you are the “best” team in the sport by every possible measure. Again, there are many ways to rank teams, and the ranking process is most often a mixture of the subjective and the objective. But come on, folks, let’s wake up and smell the proverbial coffee. One of the reasons, if not THE reason, why we find sports so compelling is that the best team does NOT always win. I hate sports cliches, but I’m going to break one out, because it is appropriate in this context. That’s why they play the game. You may be the better team by every possible metric, but you still have to take the floor or the field and win. Winning is the ultimate answer to, “If you’re the best, prove it.” Just ask Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team, without question the best and most dominant basketball program over the last decade, either men’s or women’s, and in the conversation for perhaps the best dynasty of all time, right up there with John Wooden’s UCLA teams. And yet they are NOT the champion this year, even though one could easily argue they are still the best team in the country. They are not the champion because they lost in the tournament, and that’s the nature of tournaments. That’s what makes them so compelling, so exciting, and so much fun to watch. Coach Auriemma gets this better than anyone, as evidenced by his broad grin after his team LOST the game. Why was he grinning? Because he knew that what just happened is what makes his passion so sublime. If all we had to do is compare pedigrees, ring the gong, and hand out the trophy without playing the game, no one would watch. No one would care. Incidentally, the team that beat them, Mississippi State, subsequently lost in the championship game to SEC rival South Carolina just a few hours ago. Why? Primarily because they don’t match up well with South Carolina, and South Carolina, being an in-conference rival, is a team familiar with their tactics. So, does this mean UConn was somehow cheated? Does it mean South Carolina’s championship is not legitimate because they didn’t even have to play the best team, Connecticut? No, OF COURSE NOT. So let’s shut up with all of the Gonzaga didn’t have to play Kentucky or Duke or Arizona or Villanova or Kansas or UCLA garbage, OK? It means nothing at all.
- Good Wins And Bad Losses – And if you really want to play the whole Truck Stop League versus Conference Of Champions game, Bill Walton, let’s take a look at good wins and bad losses for some of the other teams I see being tossed around Twitter as more “worthy” than Gonzaga. On the season, the Zags have a single loss, to BYU in the final game of the regular season. Of course that is a game that they should not have lost, but it is their only blemish on the season. In the good wins column; they beat Florida when they were unranked, but they finished the season ranked 20th; Arizona when they were ranked 16th, final rank 4th; Iowa State when they were ranked 21st, final rank 17th; and St. Mary’s three times, all of which they were ranked in the top 25. How about Gonzaga’s foe, UNC? They had 7 losses on the season, which I believe is close to the most ever for a team receiving a #1 seed in the tournament. Bad losses? How about Indiana??!!! Anyone want to argue that Indiana is better than BYU? Didn’t think so. (Yes, Indiana was still ranked at that point in the season – 13th.) They also lost to unranked Miami and unranked Georgia Tech (GT did advance to the NIT championship, losing to TCU), Virginia when they were ranked 23rd, Kentucky, and Duke TWICE, and yet the committee still gave UNC a #1 and Duke a #2. Let’s take a team that Gonzaga didn’t have to play, say, Kentucky. Kentucky had a great season with only 5 losses prior to losing to UNC in the tournament. But one of Kentucky’s losses was to lowly Tennessee. How about UCLA? The Bruins had a great win over Kentucky when they were ranked #1, but lost to lowly USC and to Arizona twice. I could go on and on examining any team you care to bring up and pointing out a great win and a bad loss. So what is my point? You cannot take a single “bad loss” and hang it on a team like an albatross and say it makes them undeserving overall. Neither can you demand that a team run the gauntlet and beat every major contender in existence to prove its worth. Sometimes teams are required to win multiple games against stiff competition to win a championship, and teams that have done just that become the stuff of legend (the 1997 Arizona Wildcats immediately come to mind, and perhaps Danny Manning and the Miracles). But at other times, champions are not required to beat a parade of heavyweights. Neither situation makes a team more or less of a legitimate champion. It just makes for interesting conversation Tuesday morning at work.
- “Complaining About The Officials Is A Loser’s Excuse” – This is a direct quote from one of my favorite radio play-by-play men, the Pacer’s Mark Boyle. Every fan complains about the officiating. I do my share of criticizing officials in this blog. It’s part of the sports experience. It’s no mystery at all that officiating can certainly influence the outcome of a game, but officiating is part of the game, and is one of many factors that influence the eventual outcome. A game’s outcome is dependent upon a myriad of factors, officiating being only one. It is rare that officiating alone can be blamed for either a victory or a loss. Is it a significant factor? Sure. Is it the factor that trumps all others? No. Yes, Gonzaga got the benefit of the missed goal tending call in the game versus Northwestern, but it is impossible to determine what would have happened had the call been made. At the same time, Gonzaga has no doubt been on the receiving end of missed or questionable calls as well. Every team in the tournament could be said to have both benefited and been hurt by some piece of officiating somewhere along the way. When a call happens at a particularly critical point of the contest, it certainly feels like a determining factor in the final outcome. But this is not the 1972 Olympics where the charges of conspiracy by the officials were more than a theory, but rather patently obvious to any observer. Officials are human and make mistakes just like the players. Overall, though, it’s a wash, and trying to use “the refs won the game for them” or “the refs lost the game for them” as a means to detract from a team’s success smacks of sour grapes.
- Injuries Are Part Of The Game – Not only is officiating part of the game, but so are injuries. Injuries are endemic to any sport. The argument that a team like Gonzaga has or will benefit from an opponent lacking a key player due to injury, thereby implying that its success should be marked with some sort of asterisk, is asinine. Did anyone hear Roy Williams apologizing because UNC beat Oregon without Chris Boucher? Of course you would prefer to beat a team at full strength, but as a team in competition, you have no control whatsoever over the players your opponent is or isn’t able to field. People who already are dismissing Gonzaga’s championship, should they win it, as hollow because Joel Berry is hurt are completely clueless about the basic nature of sports. Staying healthy is definitely a key to success, but no victor ever surrendered the trophy because its opponent lost a player to injury. Unless you can prove the Gonzaga ball boy knee-capped the dude in a dark alley, the argument has no relevance at all.
And thus I conclude my Gonzaga apologetic. As much as it may sound like the ravings of an unabashed homer, and no doubt to some extent it is just that, I do believe that the principles I’ve presented apply equally to any team and could just as easily be used in defense of the squad of your choice. We love sports because, again to use a hated cliche, on any given night, anyone can win. People can and always will try to bring down the winner; it’s human nature to do so, I think. But the truth is that once they hand you that trophy, you are a champion, and no amount of Tweeting, talking, criticizing or complaining can take that away from you. Such will be the case for whoever wins tomorrow night, and for my part, I’m rooting for Gonzaga. All they have to do to be champions is win one more game. They do not have to silence or answer all of their critics. They do not have to defeat some other opponent who lost too soon for whatever reason its fans care to put forth. All they have to do is win one more game. Just one more. Go Zags!
The Wizard of Whiteland