For any incoming freshmen, the next college basketball season — whenever it begins — will be what a freshman season typically is: a new journey, a big opportunity bursting with possibility and hope. Yes, the next college basketball season will carry with it a special joy and resonance.
By Matt Zemek
Whenever that blessed day comes when sports regularly become part of our lives again, everyone will feel the vibrance, the sense of relief, the sense of gratitude, and the awareness of having survived something which is awful and terrifying at its worst, profoundly inconvenient at its best. Yes, the next college hoops season will be different, but for freshmen, it will always be their first taste of college hoops — maybe delayed, but not denied.
For any returning SEC basketball player who played a relatively central role in his team’s previous season — for better or worse — the next college basketball season won’t be a freshman season. I mean this literally, but I mean it profoundly in a different way: It won’t feel like a first new season, even though it will be the renewal of college basketball after the coronavirus pandemic. It will feel like the continuation of an unfinished symphony.
Any returning SEC hoopster who mattered to his 2020 basketball team will enter the next college basketball season in pursuit of unfinished business. This isn’t inherently good, nor is it inherently bad. It just IS. It is the reality returning players of importance will face, for a simple reason:
The 2020 season did not end — not fully, not naturally.
Kentucky didn’t get a chance to make the Final Four for the first time in five years.
LSU didn’t get a chance to make a second straight Sweet 16 under Will Wade.
Auburn didn’t get a chance to make back-to-back Final Fours.
Florida didn’t get a chance to possibly knock off a No. 1 seed in the second round and begin to restore its reputation.
Arkansas didn’t get a chance to play its way into the NCAA Tournament by making a run in the SEC Tournament.
Mississippi State didn’t get a chance to play Florida in the SEC quarterfinals and play its way into the NCAA Tournament field.
Several other teams had the door closed on them before they could obtain genuine closure for themselves, for better or worse.
Only Ole Miss and Vanderbilt brought their seasons to a natural end by losing on Day 1 of the SEC Tournament… and those two teams had known for a long time that their seasons would end precisely when they did. For any of the teams which had at least some thought of playing into the NCAA Tournament or even merely the NIT, they never wrote the final chapter. They never had the elation of seeing their names called on Selection Sunday. They never had the heartbreak of being absent from the Selection Show, or the deeper ache of losing in the NCAA Tournament, short of the Final Four.
For everyone except Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, the next SEC college basketball season will be a continuation of what was unfinished.
Kentucky won’t be angry that it fell short of the Final Four. It will simply want to take the next step and make the new NCAA Tournament a chance to complete a story which wasn’t able to be written at the 2020 NCAA tourney.
LSU and Auburn won’t be angry so much as intent on affirming the achievements they have forged in recent seasons.
Florida might be angry, knowing that it expects to be a Final Four contender but fell well short of that standard this past season. Nevertheless, the Gators didn’t experience the sting of a final defeat. Other No. 8 or No. 9 seeds (UF probably would have been in that seed range) have shocked No. 1 seeds and made Cinderella Final Four runs. The Gators were probably talented enough to be a threat — not likely to go all the way to Atlanta for the 2020 Final Four, but possessing the resources to get hot and get on a roll.
They never finished their journey in 2020, for better or worse.
Arkansas and Alabama had rocky seasons which showed how good their respective new coaches could potentially be. Yet, the Hogs and Tide didn’t finish their seasons so much as they drifted into the uncertainty of what might have been. They didn’t absorb the daggers of being snubbed on CBS on Selection Sunday; they probably both suspected a snub was coming, but not having the finality of a decision, revealed before the nation, leaves their stories unfinished.
For South Carolina, for Tennessee, for Mississippi State, the NIT was a probable destination, but they’ll never fully know if they would have been given the chance to do more.
It’s not a typical circumstance, and so it won’t be a typical year when the next SEC college hoops season begins.
Following an unfinished season and an NCAA Tournament which never happened, no one will be taking the court with recent memories of bitterness or betrayal, only a desire to take the next step, a step which might lead to closure at the end of a season which has a genuine denouement.