by Alex Langer
“There’s always next year.” It’s a refrain you’ll hear in any sports bar at the end of a particularly disappointing season. Whether it is a NCAA basketball team, chock-full of five star recruits, losing in the Sweet Sixteen and failing to make a Final Four for sixteen years running, or an MLB team finishing one game out of a playoff spot, or a talented NBA team with one of the best players of all-time losing resoundingly to one of the greatest collections of talent in NBA history, within minutes of a loss, fans, coaches and players inevitably turn their minds to the next year. Even for victorious teams, whether they be the New England Patriots or the Alabama Crimson Tide, quickly the focus turns to next year. Next year, this player will take the leap and become an “elite” player, making the team even better. Next year, the team will have more experience and know to give the ball to the star in the last twenty seconds, and they won’t lose early in the tournament. Next year, we have a top recruiting class coming in, and these players are the real deal.
It’s a malady of sports fandom, this focus on next year, rooted in the overwhelming importance of championships. I believe that the constant focus on the next year, especially for fans, comes from an outsized focus on championship banners. In college basketball, sixty-eight teams compete for a national championship each year. In professional leagues, around thirty teams compete for a title. Most storied franchises have around five championships to their name. The great many seasons teams participate in end in tears and heartbreak. It is no wonder that, instead of dwelling on the pain of defeat, fans would rather focus on how the next year will be different. Would it not be better to focus on the great moments of the preceding season, instead of letting the concrete moments of joy fade, to be replaced by feverish fantasies of a perfect future?
To give you an example from my own fandom, this last year the Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball team was pretty good. They were not a favorite to win it all. They weren't as widely discussed as UCLA, with their gorgeous offense, led by the eventual No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft, Lonzo Ball. But they were a talented and deep team, and many pundits had them being a Final Four team, defeating eventual runners-up Gonzaga. Instead, in the tournament, Arizona looked young and unsure of itself, fell into bad habits (trying to shoot threes against a zone, taking too many isolation plays), and fell to a good, but not great, Xavier team. Within minutes, members of the next Arizona recruiting class sent out Twitter comments about how next year was the year, about how they would be the ones to bring Arizona back to the Final Four.
I found myself, rather than thinking of the lost opportunity, instead looking forward to the next season, when the Wildcats would (finally, I told myself), have a powerful defensive presence at center: DeAndre Ayton, the No. 3 prospect in the nation, according to scout.com. That is all well and good. The Wildcats should be very good next year. A few sites have them pegged as the preseason No. 1 team. There’s no shame in looking forward to the next year. Yet, in my haste to think of the next iteration of the Wildcats, I didn’t dwell on how excited I was when Arizona defeated UCLA and then Oregon on back-to-back nights in the Pac-12 tournament. I chose to forget Lauri Markannen's 30-point game against our rivals, Arizona State. Looking forward to the next year, telling my friends and fellow alumni that next year, for the first time in twenty-one years, would be our year, distracted me from the nearly six months of joy that the season had brought me.
For those fans that celebrate a championship and then immediately look forward to the next one, to the creation or continuation of a dynasty, the same impulse can blind us to the realities of how unlikely a dynasty is. I am sure that, after their victory over Cleveland three years ago, Golden State fans looked impatiently forward to the next season. That next season, they enjoyed multiple records and, eventually, suffered one of the most devastating collapses in NBA history. So they looked ahead to the next year, putting an incredible 73-win season behind them to focus on their redemption. When the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos in the 2013 Super Bowl, they chanted “what’s next?” in the victorious locker room. What was next was a miraculous victory over Green Bay, followed by, perhaps, the worst Super Bowl loss of all time, a dynasty-shattering play that, even now, haunts the team. Perhaps taking an extra day to revel in the victory wouldn't have been the worst idea.
Finally, there is the question of whether there is a next year. It’s likely that the Cleveland Cavaliers will be back in the NBA Finals next year, but there are no guarantees. Will they get better? LeBron already had to have one of the more heroic Finals performances in history (see last week’s article, by our resident NBA expert, Chris Foss) just to eke out one win. Is there a next year? When the Mariners missed the playoffs by one game last year, I hoped for this year. Except, the roster is old and getting older, and the Houston Astros are on pace to challenge the record for most wins in a season (116). There probably isn't a next year. So, I could sit and create scenarios where Seattle second-baseman Robinson Canó suddenly de-ages, or I can remember the indelible moments my team brought me the year before.
I write this article not to shame you for looking forward to next year, or argue that you shouldn't be excited. In fact, the very reason most of us watch sports is the possibility of it all, the fantasy of that perfect season. It's why the NBA and NFL drafts are must-see television. It is why the offseason is often as exciting as the season. All I am saying is that the overwhelming majority of the time, a season ends in disappointment and heartbreak, and looking forward to next year can be a way of getting past the annual sadness. I do it. We all do. Yet, I think we should spend more time remembering the highlights of the season, before immediately thinking of the next year’s possibilities. Isn't it true that the indelible moments of the season that just finished are just as important as the possibilities for next year?
 Here is the list for 2017: http://www.scout.com/college/basketball/recruiting/2017-basketball-prospects