Christmas break for me was, this year, the longest I have had in recent memory -- in fact, the longest I have had since seventh grade. For years, I spent the majority of Christmas break in various gyms, equally stuffy and non-festive all of them, shooting and posting and running drills and windsprints until my legs wanted to fall off. In fact, I think Christmas, basketball-wise, was one of the periods of time I disliked most. It cut into my family (and snowman making!) time; it meant I never really escaped my strictly-regimented schedule; and most of all, it carried with it a strange, awkward sensation not unlike drinking milk you're not entirely sure has gone bad yet. (Does this smell funny to you?)
In university, it was a lot more of the same. While practices were certainly easier than they were in training camp (I'll be honest, dragging a Civic up Grouse Grind with the park brake on is probably a little easier than training camp), and they were finally, gloriously, tear-swelling-ly later than 6 AM (which was a Christmas gift all unto itself), they still felt WEIRD. We did strange drills, like throwing footballs (now-Huskie Katie Miyazaki, once a high school QB, always passed perfectly despite our wonky Family-Circus-esque routes), doing multiple-basketball passing drills, and getting mulligans on free throws. We were all harried from studying and exam-writing, and the newfound practice times and gyms (not only sunlight, but WINDOWS, I tell you!) made us all a little squinty and suspicious. By the end of it, we were usually granted a mere four or five days in our respective home towns and provinces, then herded back like resistant cattle on Boxing Day afternoon to run more practices, scrimmage against high school boys, and sometimes travel to tournaments.
It was all done with our best interests in mind, of course: were we to take the full two to three weeks off, as per the average student, we would not only lose all semblance of shape we had developed during the earlier part of the season, but we would lose all fluidity and rhythm of play as well. In all likelihood, we would arrive back on campus, set one foot on the court, and collapse in an anthill-like heap of twitching legs and jerking arms and quivering shame while other teams danced a merry jig around our inert collective form. And yet, despite our best efforts to the contrary, returning to league play (and all of the practices in the middle) was always strange, and often came with dire results. Games we should have blown out were suddenly buzzer-beating matches; teams we held close stride with were cleaning the backboard with us; and our collective memory of the plays and systems seemed frazzled, as if the connecting wires had subtly rusted and eroded from all the tryptophan, Christmas cookies, and pine-needle scent in our systems. Christmas break was like a big, fat (red and green) wrench thrown in the middle of basketball's turning cogs, and it took at least a good week or so before any of us felt like we'd managed to slide it out.
That's why, when I see scores like the Windsor loss this past weekend, I have to take them with a grain of salt. Nothing against Western, of course -- theirs is a program that has... well, I'm loathe to say "surprised" with their string of successes, but has nonetheless proved a number of pundits right as they've thundered their way to the #3 spot in the CIS rankings. What I mean is, on paper, Windsor should be one of, if not the, top program(s) in the CIS right now -- and the Western game was their first game back from winter break. Should the loss have dropped them down a spot? Absolutely. Should it have moved Western up two spots? Without a doubt. But should those rankings remain the same in the coming weeks, before they meet again on Jan. 19? Perhaps not.
Similarly, I agree with Saskatchewan's move up to the top spot. As predicted in the preseason Top 20, Saskatchewan, Windsor, Western and Regina are all pretty much where expected: battling it out for a close battle in the top 5. The Huskies' win against McMaster gave them some well-deserved points in the minds of the Eastern point-takers, and so it should: no one can, or should, say they are the best of the best without testing themselves in foreign waters. But then again, Sask came up against neither W -- Western or Windsor -- on their trip. Should that have made a difference in the rankings? Again, probably not (but only probably).
My point is, it's a recurring theme: big, powerful teams get bigger and more powerful; they win games; they climb the rankings; they go on Christmas break; they come back. Meanwhile, small fish take advantage of the shark's lack of hunting practice, turn the beast on its tail, and upset them first thing in the spring semester. It's happened before (and to me), and I guarantee it will happen again. But (and I say again, BUT), not one of the aforementioned games was part of a doubleheader, and I would put good odds (and a little bit of money) on the likelihood of a split, were those opportunities to present themselves.
Again, though, for the final time (for now), I must play devil's advocate. This loss is not Windsor's first, nor is it the first time they have fallen from the top spot. And upsets are not, and never will be or have been, solely limited to post-winter break: in league, in playoffs, in national finals, every giant has fallen at least once (and will likely fall again). So do we put more or less weight on those upsets that arrive on the heels of St. Nick's black boots? Which is more significant, a team that cracks under national final pressure or exam stress and pumpkin pie? When can we ever really say that an upset will, or will never, happen? We can't really; we can't determine an arbitrary method of weighting them any more than we can predict their arrival.
And that, my friends, is the true nature of sport.
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