The sublime joy of an NCAA tournament ban

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

March is here and UConn is banned from playing in the postseason, so why am I so happy?

In 1937 first-year head coach Don White led the UConn basketball team to an 11-7 record. He was taking over after UConn finished a dismal 3-11 in 1936, and he produced UConn's first winning team since the 1930-31 squad went 10-6. UConn's media guide has no stats that go back that far, so I can't tell you who the best player was, but I have to imagine that the team's success came as a relief to whatever residents of Storrs counted themselves as sports fans in the late 1930s.

I've been thinking about that 1937 UConn team, and the thirty1 or so that came before it, because like this year's UConn team, they had no postseason to play for. The NIT wasn't founded until 1938 and the NCAA tournament didn't start until the year after. Even once they did exist, they were small, the six-team NIT and eight-team NCAA brackets meant that only a small sliver of teams could play for any sort of postseason title, and UConn didn't play in its first postseason game until losing to Holy Cross in the 1951 NCAA tournament.

Through the end of that 1937 season, teams representing UConn won 200 games. They lost 195. Some seasons, like a 15-4 campaign including two wins over rival Rhode Island in 1921-22 were probably great. Others are probably better lost to history, like the 1-8 season of 1918-19 (The one win? A 46-27 stomping of Boston College. Naturally.) But good or bad, there were 395 games played for a farm school in eastern Connecticut without the chance to go to anything like what we'd consider a postseason.

UConn lists the team's record in 1937 as 11-7, but that's a bit misleading, because the last game of the year wasn't against another school, but rather against alumni. The Huskies didn't play a rival. They played.... other Huskies. The team won that game in '37, avenging a loss the previous year, but when it was over it was over. Everyone went home. Finish up your classes, have a nice summer and all that.

1 It's tough to get an actual count for a variety of reasons. Do you count the 1900-01 squad that only played one game? How about the teams from 1910-1913 which played under the name Connecticut Agricultural College, but were actually club teams that didn't feature students and didn't play other colleges?

***

Now, I don't want this to drift into the territory of sepia-toned bullshit. I don't want to give anyone the impression that the games those teams played were in any way more noble or special than the games played by a modern team, because they had less potential for reward. Nor do I want to make it sound like I'm grateful that UConn is banned from this year's Big East or NCAA tournaments. But I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about those old teams more than once while considering watching UConn this year. It was nice, in a way, not to follow bracketology, or the polls, or even the standings.

Instead, I watched the games to, well, watch the games. I was crushed on January 14, because that was the day that I learned that yeah, Louisville was better than UConn this year. But I was elated on November 9, because that's when I knew UConn was better than Michigan St., or on February 13 when UConn topped Syracuse, or last Saturday, when, for the second time, UConn gutted out an overtime win over Providence.

A year ago, knowing about the ban, I wondered what'd it mean to the player's interest, to the general fan interest, and to my interest. Yes, there was some fan drop-off: the empty seats announced that loud and clear, but I'm happy to say that none of that reduction came from me. Instead I watched every game as passionately as I did before, with heart thumping in my chest and throat sore from screaming. I loved this team, and watching how hard they played, ridiculous as it sounds, it was hard not to feel like they loved me back.

***

I don't think it's telling tales out of school to say that I occasionally indulge in a little light schadenfreude especially when it comes to UConn's orange-hued neighbors to the north. That's why, after Georgetown blew the doors of Syracuse I found myself wondering over to our Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, Syracusefan.com and Syracuse.com to read their postgame reactions. They were, in a word, glorious. But the more I read, the more I realized that I was reading a reflection of what this blog, or The Boneyard, looked like a year ago. The Orange have more talent then they know what to do with, but their fans are worried that they're falling apart at the seams. Sound familiar? It should for people who watched Andre Drummond, Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and the rest bomb out of last year's NCAA tournament. Their Hall-of-Fame head coach? Well he said he wants to go play golf somewhere. Could he be retiring? Should he be retiring? If so, what happens next, what if Mike Hopkins leaves for USC? Then how could you possibly replace him? And if that wasn't enough, the commenters over at Syracuse.com (who are a sub-YouTube-commenter level of internet species), seem to think an NCAA ban is right around the corner. Fun times indeed.

I'm sure things will turn out fine for the Orange in the long run, after all, UConn fans should know better than anyone that finishing 1-4 in your last five Big East games doesn't disqualify you from greatness. But when I see their misery and stress, I see what I looked like a year ago, and I see how happy I am not to be in that place anymore.

***

I was elated when Ryan Boatright's shot when in on Saturday and UConn slipped past the Friars in overtime. I ran around my apartment screaming, I nearly got put in twitter jail celebrating and I had a smile I couldn't wipe off my face. That's what I expected to feel. That's what I always feel. That's why I'm addicted to this school, and this sport, and this team. But I also felt something else I wasn't expecting: relief.

To just about everyone else on Earth it must have looked like UConn's postseason ban was starting. That's the sensible way to think about it since the Big East Tournament won't start until tomorrow, and the NCAA tournament is still 10 days away. But that's not what I felt. I felt like the ban was over. The ban, to me, wasn't defined by what UConn wasn't allowed to do, but rather by what UConn had to do before the ban kicked in: play 30 games, during each of which, as an extended form of punishment, the lack of a postseason would be mentioned again and again. It wasn't that UConn couldn't play in March, it was that UConn had 30, or 20, or 10, or five, or one game left before the hammer dropped and everyone went home. Finish up your classes, have a nice summer and all that.

But now, for me at least, the hammer has dropped. UConn isn't banned from the postseason anymore. They're in the offseason. Their next game isn't their last game until the ban, nor is it the fifth- or 10th-, or 20th-, or 30th-to-last game before the ban. The ban is over. Now there is just next season.

Now that it's over, I enjoyed my year of living in the 1930s. I'm not sure the memories of 2013 will stick with me like Kemba's title run in 2011, or the 2006 and 2009 seasons I got to experience as a student, but there was something special about cheering for this team, and they'll stick with me. When UConn upset Michigan St. to open the season Ollie gathered his players around him and credited the win to the fact that the team was playing for the name on the front of the jersey, and not the names of the back. That proved to be true all season, and it's a credit to Ollie, who's team made me as proud to be an alumnus of the University of Connecticut as any team could.

Shortly after Saturday's win, as I was enjoying the newfound feeling of relief, I did something else I didn't expect: I googled the location and dates of the 2014 Final Four. My trip back in time was fun, but it was temporary, and I'm ready to move on.

In case you're wondering the 2014 Final Four tips off on April 5 in Dallas. Hopefully I'll see you there.

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