Picking Splinters: More Than Wins & Losses

The Connecticut Huskies are NCAA champions for men’s basketball. The Connecticut Huskies are not the best team in college basketball.

Oxymoron, you say? Oh, maybe you’re just calling me a moron. I can’t quite hear you over the din of raised voices and Internet outcries proclaiming the Huskies’ virtues and my ignorance.

On Tuesday, one day after the UConn Huskies claimed the national championship by beating the Butler Bulldogs in a game so ugly it should have come with a warning from the surgeon general, Northern Arizona coach Mike Adras voted Ohio State, not UConn, the No. 1 team in the final USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll.

Roughly 2,600 Internet comments later, Adras and his viewpoint were getting a good grilling by fans floored that the best college basketball team could be a team other than the NCAA tournament winner.

But here’s the thing — he’s right.

Step back and look at the big picture. What did Monday’s national championship game prove? On one night, UConn was superior to Butler. That’s it. Now, obviously that outcome makes the Huskies national champs, but that doesn’t inherently make them the best team in college basketball.

If you want to keep things clean and tidy and only deal with wins and losses then consider this: En route to their title, the UConn Huskies beat Bucknell, Cincinnati, San Diego State, Arizona and Kentucky. Were any of those teams seriously under consideration as the best team in the nation? Maybe San Diego State. Maybe.

Did UConn play Kansas? Did they play Ohio State? Duke? No. Well, if winning is the sole criterion for defining the best team in the nation, then how can we even answer the question?

In men’s basketball we define our national champion as the team that emerges from the NCAA tournament on top. It’s clean. It’s black and white. It’s a very simple concept and it’s very easy to say UConn is the national champion. The definition of “best” however leaves a lot more wiggle room.

“Best in show,” “Best picture,” “Best dressed” – these are all subjective superlatives, just like the Coaches Poll. There is no clear-cut argument that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that one team is better than another. And frankly, for that, sports fans should be grateful, seeing as how the lack of such a truth has fueled countless sports-bar arguments since time immemorial.

It’s odd because sports fans seem to hate nuance and lust for clarity. Most fans hate the BCS and long for a college football playoff system. Why? I would like to think it’s because many people realize the unfairness of excluding an undefeated team from a national title chance. But mainly I think it’s because we like the idea of winners and losers, of black, white and right and wrong. We like not having to think about things. We love not having to make an argument for our viewpoints. We love just being able to point to a final outcome and say, “How do you like them apples?” And we love showing off our apples.

But sports are about far more than bragging rights. There are life lessons and human interest stories. There are professional careers and childhood dreams. There are varying degrees of success and there are such things as small victories. Yes, there are winners and losers. But the big picture of athletics is much grander. And those that choose to focus on the black and white are missing a world of wonder in all these shades of gray.

Some people can’t understand that a team that won a national championship -a team that went 9-9 to finish ninth in its own conference, mind you – isn’t unanimously considered the best team in the nation. I feel bad for such fans because they are the ones who can’t appreciate any of the tiny victories that occur during a season. They can’t appreciate success unless their team realizes the ultimate success.

Sadly, those are the same fans that will miss out on the most amazing aspect of UConn’s title run: that a team that was far from perfect managed to weave its way to the national title.