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College basketball's win-or-bust expectations are painfully unfair (for me, a poor Duke fan)

February 11, 2019
Eastern Michigan v Duke

Grant Halverson

Let's make a quick list of all the extremely impressive feats the Virginia men's basketball team accomplished in the 2017-18 season:

1. Started the season unranked in a supposed "rebuilding year," ended the season as the top ranked team in basketball.

2. Won the ACC regular season title with a 17-1 record, which was the best mark in the toughest conference in America since 1999, and one of just two one-loss ACC campaigns this millennium (Maryland's '01-'02 national title team was the other). Their only loss, against Virginia Tech, came in overtime.

3. Beat Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

4. Became the only ACC team this millennium to win every conference road game.

5. Won the ACC tournament, becoming only the fourth team this decade to win both conference titles.

6. Finished with the statistically best defense in the nation.

That's not a good year—that's a great year. In fact, it's probably one of the greatest in recent memory. But what will you and every other fan will remember about the '17-'18 Virginia Cavaliers, forever and ever?

1. They became the first 1-seed (and the first overall no. 1) to lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament. They are big chokey chokers.

University of Virginia and UMBC in the 1st round

The Washington Post

Even the name of their opponents, UMBC, will be on the lips of every college hoops fan from now until death.

Now, look—I don't want to paint this as some kind of tragedy. I'm a Duke alum, I despise Virginia's brand of glacial basketball, and the loss to UMBC was objectively hilarious and awesome. I remember standing in delighted shock for the last ten minutes of that game, unable to believe that not only was the once-in-a-lifetime upset possible, but that it was going to happen pretty easily against a team I hate. A few days later, I was at a Virginia-UNC tennis match when some traveling Virginia fans started up a U-V-A chant, and I brought the house down with a very obvious but still effective U-M-B-C chant. For that moment, I was a comic genius—even my wife was mildly impressed, I think. The UMBC disaster has been very good to me.

Still, I can't help but feel a pang of empathy with Virginia fans (which is the first and hopefully last time I'll ever write that sentence). Theirs is an extreme situation, but it does seem a shame that one of the greatest ACC basketball campaigns ever amounts to...well, to national embarrassment. All because of one loss. I've written before about the unfairness of championship expectations in sports, and how we should probably appreciate great regular seasons a lot more, but college basketball is the ultimate hotbed for outsized expectations. The thing is, that Virginia team had to win a title last year. Yes, they flamed out in spectacular fashion, but a Final Four loss would have disappointed the fan base, too, and even a loss in the title game would have left a bad taste.

For really, really good NCAA teams—of which there are more than one each year—the college basketball format breeds a title-or-bust mindset, and while that's crazy in any sport, it's especially egregious in a sport where the postseason tournament comes down to six individual elimination games. Sure, the first one is a gimme (unless you're Virginia), but the next five are all against good-to-great teams, and it just takes one bad performance to watch it all go up in smoke. For a fan to expect a title under these conditions, and to be disappointed at anything less, is outrageous. And yet it happens every year.

Which brings me back to my precious Duke Blue Devils. We just kicked the bejesus out of Virginia at their place, we have a living god in Zion Williamson, a magical point guard from the clutchest family in America not named "Curry," and another guy who might be the top pick in the NBA draft. Our defense—the best indicator of title potential—has been in lockdown mode for most of the year, and nothing seems to scare us, including hostile ACC road games.

You see where I'm going here: Starting with the final buzzer at Virginia on Saturday, Duke nation has fully entered the dreaded Title Expectation Mode. With these players, nothing else will suffice, and a premature loss will invite scorn from the many, many haters of the program.

Problem is, aside from a few anomalous games, we can't shoot. Come March, teams will be throwing zone defenses at us for lack of a better plan, and all it will take is one flukey game for everything to collapse. Despite our superior athleticism and transcendent skill, heartbreak is very much on the table.

And here's the bigger problem: We've created a situation for ourselves in which winning will bring more relief than joy, and anything less will be devastating.

There's absolutely nothing that will change this, and I know I'm shouting into the void, but college basketball is a cruel mistress and I want to put it on record before I, too, succumb to the title-or-bust mania and find myself weeping into the metaphorical gutter of dashed dreams. When that moment comes, I will whisper "U-M-B-C" in an effort to cheer myself up, but there will be no one there to laugh.

But hey, here's the inhuman play of the week: Zion Williamson, Duke

The angle from the top of the key is my favorite, because it shows just how freakish this was:

As the Twitter man said, ¡MONSTRUOSO!

The Farewell of the Month: Lindsay Vonn

As an Olympic fanatic, it's been reliably fascinating to watch the career of Lindsay Vonn, from the downhill gold medal in Vancouver, to the heartbreaks and injuries and crashes and disappointments, to the amazing comeback that netted her a downhill bronze in Pyeongchang. This year, as injuries mounted, she decided to call it quits on a brilliant career. Her last race came at this weekend's world championships in Sweden, where she did this:

Vonn ended with the bronze medal, which is a spectacular and somewhat unexpected way to go out. Earlier in her career, she suggested that she wouldn't retired until she had captured the record set by Ingmar Stenmark for victories in World Cup races (Vonn leads all women with 82, Stenmark is the men's leader with 86). She wasn't able to do that, but Stenmark was on hand with flowers to congratulate her:

Great athlete, great Olympian, great American, great goodbye.

Wildest Basketball Finish Between Elites Who Hate You: Columbia-Harvard

Harvard is the most hatable entity in America, and while Columbia might be the least objectionable Ivy League school, it's still an Ivy League school, which means it's packed to the gills with elites who would make you live inside a coal mine and eat toxic waste if they had their druthers. That said, they had a really great finish to their basketball game! Check it out, complete with two buzzer beaters, three overtimes, and a victory for the (really) bad guys: