Brooklyn College’s men’s basketball team won the CUNY Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) tournament last week despite being the fifth seed and having a regular season record of 13-15. Their Cinderella-story rise to the top of CUNYAC was a wonderful thing to watch, but it also put the CUNYAC tournament under a microscope. Is it always so easy for struggling teams to win it all?
Brooklyn finished the regular season with a 7-7 record against CUNY opponents, good for the fifth seed in the conference. Six teams out of nine in the conference make it to postseason play, meaning many years teams with bad, even horrid records get a chance at the CUNYAC Championship. The Bulldogs had to win three matches to win the tournament (instead of just two for the top two seeds), and they did. But of course the extra game is not just an arbitrary disadvantage constructed out of thin air. Brooklyn struggled in the regular season largely due to rebounding, and glaring issues like this usually don’t just disappear in the postseason. In fact your weaknesses become more apparent and compounded by playing superior opponents.
According to CUNY Athletics, from 2000 to 2015, only two teams won the CUNYAC Championship after finishing the regular season with a losing record. The Bulldogs’ success in the CUNYAC tournament this year is not completely unprecedented, as Baruch won in 2007 with a record of 11-16 and Lehman won in 2012 with a record of 12-14. Still, it is not easy to flip the switch and go on a tear once the postseason starts, and the Bulldogs’ performance in this year’s CUNYAC tournament is an aberration.
The CUNYAC tournament began in varying years depending on the sport, but the first tournament was held for men’s basketball in 1965-1966 season, hence the 55th anniversary this year. Competitions began in all sports when the CUNYAC office came into existence in 1987.
A few years ago, CUNY decided to cut down the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs from eight to six, with the top two teams getting a bye. Athletic directors decided six teams struck the right balance between allowing access to the postseason (and thus the NCAA tournament) while excluding the teams that significantly underperformed.
“This has fostered better competition for the playoff spots and given the regular season games far more meaning than when everyone qualified,” says Zak Ivković, Executive Director of the CUNYAC.
Women’s basketball here at Brooklyn College also won the tournament, though they entered with the number-one seed. This dichotomy between both teams finding success shows what general sports fans already know: what is most important is finding a nice groove and momentum right before entering postseason play. The women’s team did not let lofty expectations get to their heads and overwhelm them, and the men’s team had a confidence that went beyond their record and they surpassed expectations.
Still, upsets like they pulled off are not common.
“That is why we play the games and that is sports,” says Ivković. “One never knows who can walk away with a victory despite their results up until that point.”