Reflections on the end of another basketball season

This part isn't very fun for me.

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It’s been about a month since WSU crashed out of the men’s NIT and women’s NCAA tournament virtually simultaneously, and almost that long since I started writing this post.

You might have noticed that Craig and I haven’t recorded an episode since before that final game; our preview of the women’s game sat atop our site’s page until I published this.

Maybe you didn’t notice. I’m probably vastly overstating how much any of you care about what we do here, and you’re only just now noticing it since I’m pointing it out.

Either way, it’s clear that we haven’t exactly been knocking ourselves out to find the time in our schedules to talk about the Cougs. Each time we’d text about maybe recording, there was some reason or another why we couldn’t fit it in, and each time I’d think, “ah, well, nevertheless,” and go back to Ted Lasso or whatever.

I can’t speak for my friend in these matters, but I know my own lack of motivation came from two factors.

The first is just the spectacularly shitty nature of each team’s final game — particularly the women. If you listened to that tournament preview podcast, you know that Craig and I were each concerned about FGCU’s quality, despite WSU’s seeding advantage. However, we still were confident that the Cougs would secure their first tournament win in school history, even devoting a fair amount of time to looking ahead to Villanova.

What ensued — as Craig and I watched forlornly at Flatstick Pub1 in Pioneer Square — was worse than any scenario either of us dreamed up on the show. The 12th seeded Eagles controlled the game virtually from start to finish, completely outclassing the Cougs. WSU knew that FGCU would try to shoot 3s, so they took away 3s, but FGCU knew that WSU knew that, so they had a plan of attack to counter it, using their quickness to pick apart WSU’s defense over and over and over by consistently putting the Cougs’ bigs into uncomfortable, no-win situations.

The Eagles expertly worked the two-player game to get layup after layup after layup, and the Cougs just had no counter for the counter. Kamie Ethridge, so well known for her adjustments as games go on, had no answers. Nothing exemplified the futility of it all more than Ethridge inserting little-used guard Kaia Woods in the fourth quarter as a final attempt to contain the Eagles’ penetration. (It worked a little, but it was way too late.)

I had been legitimately convinced that, after a pair of first round exits, this was the year there would be a run. All the ingredients were there: Experience, scoring, defense, toughness. Watching this team, which had authored so many second half comebacks, fall behind early and then just flail away in bewilderment for the remainder of the contest was actually pretty damn depressing — particularly in contrast with the celebration in Las Vegas just two weeks before.

That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. It was absolutely jarring. I was crushed, and I was none too eager to relive that pain.

Nor was I looking forward to what the end of the season would force me to confront.

As long as the season is going, we can choose not to think much about who might be leaving and just focus on the basketball. (At least, that’s how I choose to do it.) Once it’s over, though … it typically doesn’t take very long for the gut punches brought on by unfettered free agency to arrive:

Bamba was set to be a senior cornerstone of a squad that was finally going to break through to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008. Now, Kyle Smith is tasked with replacing a guy whose skill set was unique to the roster. This is on top of Mouhamed Gueye declaring for the NBA draft (where he’ll probably stay) and Dishon Jackson hitting the portal as well.

I think most of us were mentally prepared for the possibility of those two, but watching Bamba leave is just so, so disappointing.

To be clear, I’m not disappointed in him. I’ve long been a champion of player empowerment, and while unfettered player movement definitely sucks for me, that's not a reason to restrict players from moving to a new school in a quest to get whatever it is they’re seeking — increased playing time, increased level of competition, or just plain ol’ cash.2 This is our penance for a century of exploitation of the labor of athletes. Bamba should do what’s best for him, and if he thinks that’s Villanova, then I hope it works out great.

But it’s still a crappy situation from a fan perspective. I don’t like the fact that I can’t start looking to the next season as soon as one season ends; I don’t like that I can’t count on watching the vast majority of players develop over the course of years. I used to enjoy the optimism that was inherent in this time of year; now I’m not even sure what I could even write about this team team at this point because I can’t even be sure of who’s actually going to be on it.

It’s the uncertainty that kills me, to be honest. At least with pro sports, you know everyone’s contract status so you can usually mentally prepare yourself for these breakups — rare is the Ken Griffey Jr. moment anymore.3 But in college right now, anyone can go anywhere at any time. That constant feeling of trepidation — that need to qualify everything with “as long as nobody else leaves” — is not what I signed up for when I fell in love with college sports.

Which leaves me on the verge of sounding like I’m whining about how college sports just ain’t what they used to be, and that honestly just kind of grosses me out. I do my best to embrace change, and I do think it’s possible to recognize that this is both the right thing for players in this moment and also very much not fun as a fan.

I just haven’t really yet figured out how to reckon with that dissonance. Maybe someday I’ll be like my friend Bryce who loves the idea of being able to rebuild a roster every offseason and gets excited to see where players land. I’m not there yet, though.

When it all shakes out, I know we’ll end up with a team that I’m excited about — that’s just how Kyle Smith rolls with his staff. But the process of getting there is not one I relish following closely.

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