COLUMBIA — Claiming a national title was never contingent on receiving a trophy, though it would have aided South Carolina's argument that its women’s basketball team deserves to be called champion.
Nevertheless, the Gamecocks won’t get a trophy, just as they weren’t able to play in the NCAA Tournament that could have left them the no-doubt national champions, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Women’s Basketball Coaches’ Association decided not to award its annual trophy this year after a Monday conference call with the National Association of Basketball Coaches (the men’s side). Each organization, which had awarded the $30,000 crystal basketball trophy to the team that finished No. 1 in the USA Today/Coaches’ Top 25 — but always after the national championship game — concluded that it wouldn’t be appropriate to give out a trophy when there would be no final coaches’ poll.
“We agreed with the women’s side that we shouldn’t award a trophy this year,” NABC Senior Director of Communications Rick Leddy said.
The WBCA had presented its trophy every year since 1994, and like the men’s trophy, it had always gone to the national champion. It was given after every national championship game, even though the final USA Today/Coaches’ Top 25 wasn’t released until the next day, because the coaches would naturally vote the NCAA Tournament winner as the No. 1 team in the poll.
Since the Gamecocks finished No. 1 in the final poll of the year, by the language of the trophy’s requirements, there was a possibility that they would receive a second trophy for their women’s basketball office lobby to match the one they got after the 2017 national championship game.
The WBCA’s decision doesn’t stop the Gamecocks, who went 32-1, from claiming a national championship. There is no NCAA nor SEC rule that says they can’t.
But claiming a title and all of the baubles that come with it (a banner, rings, a parade on Columbia’s Main Street) would open USC up to all kinds of criticism about whether the Gamecocks truly won it. There was no tournament to decide the champion, and while USC certainly had the best resume of any team going into the tournament, that tournament didn’t occur.
Coach Dawn Staley, named Associated Press National Coach of the Year on Monday, had no reservations about wanting to claim it.
“I surely am going to push the envelope because of what happened. I think that this team did something that no other team at South Carolina has ever done, and that’s to be the No. 1 team in the country at the end of the season,” she said on a local radio interview last week. “When you have breakthroughs like that, and when you’re creating historical moments, it doesn’t matter if the bottom fell out or not, it still stands that we’re the No. 1 team in the country and we played that way, I would say, for 98 percent of the season. And that was better than everybody else in the country, so why not?”
USC could elect to raise a banner crediting the team’s No. 1 finish in each of the major polls, but the COVID-19 pandemic has taken precedent over everything. It’s the same situation facing Kansas, which finished No. 1 in the men's polls.
Kansas athletics director Jeff Long said Monday he would look at the best way to honor the men’s team but didn’t yet know what it would be. USC athletics director Ray Tanner told The Post and Courier last week that at the appropriate time, he would sit down with Staley and talk about how best to recognize a fantastic team and memorable season, while also saying that in his mind, the Gamecocks were No. 1.
The polls agreed, and while there won’t be a trophy, many others agree as well.
“They just wanted to win. They just wanted to create history. This team was destined to do great things,” Staley said. “With all of my heart, I knew we were going to make it to the championship game. I knew it.”