Tournament Time Reminds Us: Not All Endings Are Created Equal

‘Tis the season in college basketball — the season when seasons end.

Once in a great while, a season headed for a dead end suddenly finds new life. Yes, this can apply to an NCAA tournament level of achievement, but only for a blueblood program such as Kentucky. For the Wildcats and other select programs, it’s not good enough to merely reach the NCAAs. If you’re not reaching the second weekend of the Dance and competing for a Final Four, something’s amiss. Kentucky, therefore, seemed to be headed toward a very unpleasant end to its 2014 season… until it wasn’t.

For most power-conference programs, though, a season is generally a failure if there’s no place on the bracket sheet on Selection Sunday.

For most programs in the Power 5 conferences plus the Big East, Atlantic 10 and The American, making the field of 68 is the measure of whether or not a season lived up to its potential (or, as an alternative framing of the situation, whether the program is where it ought to be). Generally, these seasons are dead even before the final horn sounds in the final loss, during tournament time. However, there is that rare occasion when a nowhere team suddenly goes somewhere. The best example of this? The 2008 Georgia Bulldogs, who entered that year’s SEC Tournament with a 13-16 record, 4-12 in the SEC. Dennis Felton’s team improbably won four straight games — two in one day due to a weather-based disruption of the tournament — and made the Dance as the holder of a very unlikely automatic bid. Georgia carried a No. 14 seed, easily the lowest seed for an SEC team or any power conference team.

That kind of moment unfolds every now and then. It’s part of the charm of Championship Week (and, for some, a source of this week’s immense capacity to frustrate the human person as well). Yet, for 99 percent of power-conference teams in “nowhere” situations, seasons are about to end. A lot of them ended Wednesday night, in the first or second rounds of the just-starting power-conference tournaments.

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Consider just some of the teams that lost Wednesday night: Arizona State crashed out of the Pac-12 tournament as a No. 5 seed, blowing a late lead to 12th-seeded USC, the last-place team in the conference. Oregon State tumbled out of the Pac-12 tournament as a 7 seed, losing to 10th-seeded Colorado. Nebraska’s season is over after a first-round loss in the Big Ten tournament. Penn State’s season continues as a result of its win over Nebraska, but it will almost certainly end in one of the next two days, probably Thursday against Iowa.

Pittsburgh cemented its status as an NIT team, losing to NCAA-bound North Carolina State. Seton Hall’s free-fall over the past month and a half was not halted in the Big East tournament. The Pirates meekly submitted to Marquette in a first-round blowout. Washington squandered a late five-point lead against Stanford and exited the Pac-12 when a lot of you had gone to bed, well after 1 a.m. Eastern time.

Power-conference seasons — all in relationship to NCAA tournament aspirations, some in terms of any postseason future — are ending. They’ll continue to end the next few days.

All of us want to find closure in certain chapters of our journeys as professionals, as strivers, and as people in relationships. However, only some of us are blessed with a “good end.”

It’s much the same for college basketball programs.

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Consider the examples mentioned above. Arizona State and Nebraska made the NCAA tournament last season. Regression this season is hard to stomach, but it can easily be seen in a larger context. Ups and downs are part of the equation for those programs. They might not stay up, but they won’t stay down, either.

Oregon State faltered late in its season, but the Beavers were at rock-bottom in recent years. They can say they’ve made substantial forward strides in 2015… and they’d be right.

Washington’s season is a huge disappointment… but it became a disappointment because Robert Upshaw could no longer play for the Huskies. It’s not as though a coach took a wrong turn or failed to use the talent at his disposal. The Huskies’ unfortunate campaign can be filed under “adverse and abruptly-created circumstances.”

Pittsburgh’s and Seton Hall’s seasons are a lot harder for those programs to take. The Panthers have at least made a series of NCAA tournament appearances, but the Pirates have not crafted the same track record over the past decade, and should therefore be a lot more concerned about their future. Jamie Dixon can be counted on to repair what he’s messed up at Pitt. Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard faces a do-or-die 2015-2016 season. If he fails to make the NCAAs next year, he’ll be gone.

However, of all the seasons that ended on Wednesday, no two examples offer more of a portrait in contrasts than Virginia Tech and Kansas State.

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Virginia Tech, having just beaten Wake Forest in the ACC tournament, met its end in 2015 at the hands of Miami. The Hokies finished last in the ACC, but with a lot of freshmen getting valuable experience under a respected coach, Buzz Williams, all signs in Blacksburg point to a steady rise in a cutthroat conference. Number 14 seeds in conference tournaments are generally programs bereft of hope, but for the Hokies, the future is bright. A similar outlook exists for No. 13 seed Auburn in the SEC tournament. Bruce Pearl’s season will end very soon, but that program is headed for better days.

The same cannot be said for Kansas State.

The Wildcats endured a truly miserable conclusion to their 2014-2015 season, losing to TCU in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. The Wildcats didn’t even make the Big 12 quarters. They didn’t earn another date with Kansas, which they sorely wanted. They didn’t even finish their season with a .500 record — this, despite a season sweep (2-0) of Oklahoma and single wins over Iowa State, Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Purdue. For a program that was a No. 4 NCAA tournament seed two years ago, the Bruce Weber pattern of regression — seen clearly at Illinois after his terrific 2005 season — is too obvious to ignore.

Kansas State beat a lot of quality teams this season, and has done a lot more over the past five years than Virginia Tech.

Yet, if you were to compare the way in which the Wildcats’ and Hokies’ seasons ended on Wednesday, there would be no debate: Virginia Tech met a “good end,” and Kansas State did not.

‘Tis the season when seasons end. What kinds of realities will greet the dozens of college basketball teams whose NCAA dreams die in the next 72 hours?

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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