March Sadness: A Christma- er… A Coronavirus Story

When it was announced that the 2020 NCAA Tournament was cancelled, one of the first things that came to mind was the movie, A Christmas Story. To me, like Christmas is for kids, March is the most wonderful time of the year – something I look forward to given that KU is perennially one of the best teams in the nation. In advance of the Thursday, tournament tip-off (I’ll only acknowledge the First Four when you pry my pre- play-in game bracket of 2000 from my cold, dead hands), I am much like the turkey junkie Old Man – “A bona fide Gally Turkicanus freak. A few days before Christmas his eyes would begin to gleam with a wild and ravenous light.” Once the NCAA pulled the plug on the 2020 tournament, well…it was much like the scene in the kitchen after the Bumpus hounds tore apart the Christmas turkey:

At the very least KU fans were the Old Man – stunned and in disbelief after looking forward to the excitement and possibilities of the NCAA tournament. The author was closer to Mom, though combined with the fetal position…

Now to be clear, the NCAA made the correct, though sad, call. That having been said, being filled with excitement for this year’s dominant team one moment only to have it gone in the time it takes an embarrassed young boy to change out of a pink bunny onesie is what made me think of the Bumpus hounds’ kitchen disaster from A Christmas Story – and specifically this line:

“The heavenly aroma still hung in the house, but it was gone, all gone! No turkey, no turkey sandwiches, no turkey salad, no turkey gravy, turkey hash, turkey a-la-king, or gallons of turkey soup! Gone, all gone!”

Jean Shepherd, aka “Adult Ralphie”

It’s not an stretch in the least to say that this year’s Jayhawks were the top team in the nation. When the NCAA cancelled this year’s tournament, KU was the #1 team in most of the leading predictive and retrospective rankings including ESPN’s BPI, Jeff Sagarin’s ratings, the RPI, and Torvik, as well as the top-ranked team in both the AP and Coaches polls. The only “blemish” was how KU was #2 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, and this only happened after Gonzaga’s victory in the West Coast Conference tournament finale – I believe if KU had even been able to play even just a single Big 12 tournament game, it would have bumped the Jayhawks back to #1. But I digress…

Unfortunately, we’ll never know how many more dunks Big Doke would have been able to throw down on teams…

One of the leading predictive rankings used for college basketball, KenPom, also had KU ranked #1 and by a wide margin in terms of adjusted efficiency margin over #2 Gonzaga – 30.23 to 26.95. Now, in a single-elimination format like the NCAA tournament obviously nothing is a guarantee, but KU’s ranking is noteworthy due to the performance of the previous teams that were ranked #1 by KenPom in advance of the tournament tipping off.

As you can see, the overall results of the #1 ranked KenPom teams entering the tournament since Bill Self took the reins at Kansas are more than just solid. Only two teams didn’t make it out of the first weekend (frickin’ Northern. Iowa. in 2010…grrrr) and seven teams didn’t make it out of the second weekend. That leaves seven, top-ranked KemPom teams that made the Final Four, with three of those teams being in the final frames of the One Shining Moment montage including the legendary 2008 Jayhawks in San Antonio. Again – anything can happen in a single-elimination tournament, but I’m with Coach Self: This team was built for March and it’s a shame that this will be one of the top, what ifs for KU of all-time.

Given the abrupt end to the season, Bill Self is looking for some way to memorialize the 2020 team’s outstanding accomplishments and some writers have even supported the idea of KU being crowned champs. Even if you endorse the view of “Using the Best Method Available Given the Situation” to anoint a champion in 2020 and award the title to KU however, it’s clear that it would come with an asterisk and ring somewhat hollow – no matter the strength of our conviction or how strong the statistics we use in any barroom arguments to stake our claim might be…

Much like when Ralphie finally went to sleep clutching his oiled blue-steel beauty – an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle – believing that it was the greatest Christmas gift he had ever received and dreaming about his upcoming adventures, we’ll have to clutch just as tightly our memories of this year’s team and be satisfied with our dreams about what could have been…

Rock Chalk!

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