When Selection Sunday doesn’t happen


Writing about basketball feels frivolous at the moment. Writing about basketball has always felt a bit frivolous upon reflection. It is frivolous.

The far more typical case has always been that people have to do true, exhausting, unceasing, and often hazardous work to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Certainly my ancestors did. If I didn’t know that before, I understand it much better now.

With the fortuitous alignment of my dad’s retirement years, advancing technology, and my mother-in-law’s mastery of ancestry.com, there’s been an explosion in the field of Gasaway genealogy of late. I’ve learned enough as a student there to know that my tough and persistent yet sporadically educated forebears are looking down on me right now and saying, “He seems nice, but what is it he does again?” I know, ancestors, I know.

In the past, I’ve wondered aloud if we in this profession, perhaps unconsciously, finesse this sea change by seizing a vocabulary of terms from things that do matter — “existential crisis,” for example, is a hardy sports perennial — and smuggling those signifiers into our particular toy department. Maybe we do this because we do, in fact, recognize the frivolity.

Purely in terms of human evolution, maybe it’s basically unnatural to be doing what my colleagues and I do for a living. Maybe the leap that’s been made in the last one or two generations from actual productive labor to this is just too much of a shock to the limbic system, and crisis talk is the hush money our conscience requires for being paid to talk about people putting a ball through a hoop. (Or paid to talk about people carrying a ball across a painted line, or paid to talk about people hitting a ball with a piece of wood — basically anything with people and a ball.) Maybe crisis talk adds a whiff of gravitas to an otherwise ephemeral endeavor.

If space aliens land tomorrow and weed out all the non-essential employees, I know I’m in trouble. I accept that, but I still love watching college basketball at its best.

For the first time in my memory, I’m not watching college basketball at its best in March. The realization that I would not and in fact must not do so because of a true existential crisis dawned with what was, in retrospect, startling speed.

Wednesday started like any other March day for me over the past six years. That morning, I was DM’ing a colleague regarding curious and potentially erroneous strength of schedule figures on the NCAA’s team sheets. (Ancestors: “Who cares! What even is that? For God’s sake, man, go outside and build a barn!”)

Then the indelible succession of seminal events unfolded that evening. The NBA suspended its season, the speech was delivered from the Oval Office, the news about Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson was confirmed, and, in our particular field, Fred Hoiberg was overtaken by illness while coaching Nebraska against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament.

It was the game between the Cornhuskers and the Hoosiers that made plain to me that this season could not under any conceivable circumstances continue, or that, if it did, I was going to be precious little help to ESPN.com. I’ve watched college basketball for as long as I can remember, but this was the first contest in all those years where my brain absolutely could not be forced to pay attention to the game itself.

Instead, I watched and waited impatiently until the ball was on the same side of the floor as the Nebraska bench, just so I could see how Hoiberg looked. We know now that he was suffering from influenza A. We didn’t know that then, and Indiana’s at-large chances fell out of my consciousness entirely as I focused instead on whether Hoiberg’s assistants or players were touching him at any point.

The frightening scene with Hoiberg effectively brought the 2019-20 season to a close, even if, the following day, the Big East was a bit late in registering that, yes, everything really had changed.

The game was halted at halftime. All the other major conferences had already canceled their tournaments. The ACC’s hand was forced, for example, when Duke said it wasn’t going to show up to play its scheduled game against NC State. When the inevitable announcement came through later that afternoon that the NCAA tournament itself was canceled, the news was actually anticlimactic.

That night I heard back from my colleague about the SOS numbers on the team sheets.

So I never got to this, and obviously the point is now moot. I still want to dig in on it for clarity. I’m sure we’ll catch up soon.

I replied:

Yeah, that DM of mine was unknowingly sent on Sept 10, nvm and stay safe, sir, here’s to better times, cheers, j.

When I thought there was going to be a postseason, today was scheduled as the day when I’d discuss the excitement to be gained if we jettisoned jury deliberation and instead selected the tournament field using a win proxy like strength of record or wins above bubble. I captured the former every 24 hours these past few weeks. (I could just as appropriately have tracked the latter, for I have used it previously in this same meliorist spirit.)

On Selection Sunday, I was prepared to sum up what was for me a thrilling hypothetical bubble season in a fake bracket, as Northern Iowa, Providence, Purdue, and NC State variously rose into and fell out of the field of 68 on a daily basis. It would be good for the sport, I was going to suggest, if we knew the actual tournament field at the close of action each night. It would heighten interest in both the regular season and in conference tournaments, it would answer decades-long laments from coaches regarding opaque selection criteria and a lack of transparency, and it would bring the bracing and quantifiable daily thrill of a pennant race to the pursuit of both at-large bids and No. 1 seeds.

I’m not going to talk about that today. There will, I trust, be a Selection Sunday in 2021, and I will perhaps drop on you then like a jaguar out of a tree with charts and polemic. It will be good to have the luxury of caring about that again.

To better times. See you soon.