The UCF Knights Women’s Basketball team wrapped up their regular season with a 58-45 drubbing of the #14 South Florida Bulls in Addition Financial Arena to finish 14-3 and 11-2 in The American. They earned a split of the regular season series with the Bulls, and perhaps most importantly, the Knights picked up their first-ever victory over a top-15 ranked team in program history.
Yet UCF will not be able to celebrate that win as much as they could, since the Bulls wrapped up The American’s regular season championship by barely hanging on against the Knights in Tampa on Tuesday.
‼️ #HornsUp | #Bullieve pic.twitter.com/r0ZSYmwwdF— USF W. Basketball (@USFWBB) March 3, 2021
Let’s give Jose Fernandez and the Bulls credit. They went 15-3, 13-2 in the conference, and after playing second fiddle to UConn for almost a decade, they earned that hardware.
Here’s the problem: UCF should have a share of that hardware.
You see, the conference standings look like this:
See that asterisk up there next to USF? Here’s what it means:
So in games that were actually played, USF and UCF are all square at 12-2. But USF gets the nod as sole league champs because of a forfeit during a worldwide pandemic.
How did this happen?
Let’s go back to January 16th.
USF, then 10-1 and 7-0 in the league, was slated to play the Memphis Tigers in Tampa the following day, Sunday, January 17th, at 4 p.m. Memphis was in Tampa after having their previous game at home against Wichita State on the 13th wiped due to COVID-19.
But the game was canceled:
BREAKING USF-Memphis women’s basketball game scheduled for Sunday canceled— USF W. Basketball (@USFWBB) January 16, 2021
The explanation, according to USF’s release, was the following:
The game was canceled after Memphis deemed itself unable to compete in the game due to health and safety concerns involving its roster.
Per American Athletic Conference policy, the final decision to play or not play a particular game rests with the affected institutions. The conference will work with Memphis and USF, and if necessary, the unaffected member institutions, to determine how the game will be classified.
That was the same wording from the conference’s release.
According to Memphis’ release:
The Memphis women’s basketball game against USF scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 17 has been canceled. The Tigers have elected not to compete due to health and safety concerns.
Sunday’s scheduled contest with USF becomes the sixth Memphis women’s basketball game this season affected by health and safety concerns. The Tigers also had matchups against Southern Illinois (Nov. 29), UCF (Dec. 30) and Wichita State (Jan. 13) postponed and all games against SMU canceled.
For USF, this was the first of seven straight games they had canceled or postponed on them due to COVID-19. They would go exactly an entire month — January 13th to February 13th — between actually playing games.
Memphis, on the other hand, would play the following Wednesday at Cincinnati and get a victory.
On January 25th, The American announced that the game would be declared a forfeit and USF would receive a win in their conference standings only:
#AmericanHoops news: The American has declared a forfeit win for USF against Memphis for conference-standings purposes only as a result of the scheduled game from Jan. 17 that was not played. The teams' overall records are not affected.— American WBB (@American_WBB) January 25, 2021
There has not been a single program that has not been affected by COVID-19 in some way or another this year. It’s no different in The American, which has seen a host of cancellations and postponements throughout the season. These have inevitably affected the conference standings. While inconvenient, it’s not a surprise to anyone.
In these times, it’s prudent for the conference and its teams to give one another the benefit of the doubt and err on the side of the safety and health of the players and coaches. It seemed that this was the reason behind Memphis not playing the January 17th game at USF.
So then what happened between USF, Memphis and the conference in that intervening week after the cancellation that resulted in a forfeit that - Surprise! - ended up deciding the conference regular season championship?
When the Associated Press published their article reporting USF was on pause due to COVID, they included this tidbit:
This pause came a few days after the Bulls were awarded a rare forfeit win over Memphis.
South Florida (10-1) was set to play Memphis on Jan. 17, but that game didn’t happen as the Tigers were unable to play because of non-COVID health reasons.
“We were going to play Memphis, it didn’t happen,” Fernandez said.
The American Athletic Conference later ruled that game to be a forfeit win for the Bulls that would count in conference standings only. Memphis declined to comment to the AP on why the Tigers wouldn’t play the game.
This was only the second time in the last 20 years that a regular season women’s basketball team was awarded a win this way, according to research provided by Stats Perform.
So Memphis wouldn’t comment when asked by the AP.
USF’s only addition to the situation is from their game notes:
The game was canceled after Memphis deemed itself unable to compete in the game due to health and safety concerns involving its roster. The standings to the left reflect the forfeit the conference win adjustment only.
I asked the conference if they had any additional information, and it turns out, yes, they do. According to a conference spokesperson, in the conference bylaws, it states that:
“If a team makes the decision not to play a particular contest because of non-COVID-19 reasons, a Conference forfeit win and loss will be declared upon mutual consent of the affected institutions and the results will be reflected in the conference standings.”
That seems a bit weird. The American as a different set of circumstances regarding forfeits than the NCAA.
The game is a no-contest according to the NCAA bylaws in compliance with Rule 5, Section 3, Article 2 of the NCAA’s Women’s Basketball Rulebook (Forfeit/No Contest):
A “no contest” is when a team does not appear at the game site because of inclement weather, an accident, vehicle breakdown, illness, or catastrophic cause. An institution shall not, for statistical purposes, declare a forfeit for non-fulfillment of a contract, but rather shall declare a “no contest.”
If it’s a no contest in the eyes of the NCAA, why should it not be for The American?
But if we’ve established that Memphis didn’t want to play due to non-COVID health reasons, then what were those reasons? Did they not have enough players able to play? Were they tipped off to an issue at USF?
Memphis won’t say. We reached out to the Tigers’ athletic department, but as of today, they have not returned our emails.
Fast-forward to now, and here we are. UCF lost at the buzzer on Tuesday, and USF hoisted the regular season trophy - their first in their program’s history. 48 hours later, UCF waxed USF in Orlando and celebrated their own way, although granted without any hardware:
Top 15 win— UCF Women's Hoops (@UCF_WBB) March 5, 2021
Top 15 dance #ChargeOn | #WarOnI4 pic.twitter.com/7GS2b8y2rn
But this is a COVID-related nightmare scenario the conference wanted to avoid.
Whatever their reason for not playing on the 17th, Memphis didn’t duck USF. If they felt they could have played the game, they would have. Clearly they had good reasons for not playing the game. Otherwise they would have played it. Melissa McFerrin, the recently-retired coach of the Tigers at the time, has been a well-respected figure for the 17 years she has coached the Tigers. She wouldn’t duck anyone for any reason.
It would be a lot easier on everyone if Memphis simply said what those reasons were, but they haven’t yet, at least not publicly. And if the issue is they couldn’t make the game up, well, there have been multiple un-made-up games in The American this year, so that’s not it.
To me, the January 17th game between USF and Memphis should not be a forfeit — It should be a no-contest in the conference standings, just like it is for the overall records. USF and UCF should be tied atop the league standings as 12-2, and UCF should be able to claim a share of the conference regular season title. This would be the most fair result for everyone.
For one, UCF deserves a satisfactory explanation from Memphis as to why this game, which determined the results in the conference standings but, again, didn’t matter in terms of the NET rankings or overall records, was declared a forfeit. It’s not their fault that they get shafted for their efforts due to a quirk in the conference’s rules that applies to conference records only.
For another, Jose Fernandez and the Bulls deserve to not have an asterisk next to their name in the standings. Removing the forfeit would remove any doubts about the validity of USF’s outstanding regular season.
Alas, we may indeed get a rubber match next week in Fort Worth. USF is in the NCAA Tournament regardless of their result. But UCF is going to have to scuffle a bit, and probably have to get to the championship game to assure themselves of an at-large NCAA bid.
But again, given the unpredictability of COVID-19, there is no guarantee UCF would even get that opportunity. And it would be a shame for the Knights — and The American, which should be at least a two-bid league — to see their season end without an adequate explanation because of a decision they had no hand in making.