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1229___Ashland__vs __Warren Cent__006 Cole Villers goes under the out stretched arm of a Warren Central defender during 1st half action. Don McReynolds | For the Independent

American sports fans and media take for granted that legendary status is assigned based on postseason performance.

So what happens when one of the best basketball teams that has ever played at this level in this area doesn't get to finish the postseason?

Professional soccer — the sport that most moves the needle in nearly every country outside the United States and Canada — bestows champion recognition (just about everywhere except MLS) onto the team with the greatest winning percentage at the end of the regular season.

That philosophy rewards consistency and excellence over a period of, say, 10 months, as opposed to catching fire for one.

It's no secret the best team doesn't always win a postseason tournament to become champion. Why else would they call it March Madness?

Back to the 2019-20 Ashland Tomcats, which it seems apparent by any measure deserve a spot on the Mount Rushmore of northeastern Kentucky basketball teams. Thirty-three challenges issued and all answered, most decisively, a few dramatically and all in pursuit of a mantle they will never achieve through no fault of their own.

These Tomcats will never get to prove their mettle on the state level after the Sweet Sixteen was officially (finally, and mercifully) canceled on Tuesday afternoon due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For that matter, neither will the resounding region champion Russell Lady Devils, which like Ashland's boys were tops in the region from start to finish, from the preseason northeastern Kentucky coaches' poll to the night of their coronation in Ellis T. Johnson Arena.

"I think it makes this team more remarkable," Ashland coach Jason Mays said thoughtfully, "because they're sort of always gonna have that caveat or that asterisk. Didn't get a chance to prove it. I think that makes this team very unique."

Would Ashland have been the fourth team in state boys hoops lore to go undefeated wire-to-wire, joining the 1927-28 Tomcats, 1915-16 Henderson and 1947-48 Brewers?

That would have been challenging, with an opener against Elizabethtown (27-3) and then a possible road of Madisonville-North Hopkins (31-3) and McCracken County (30-5) just to get to the final, where Covington Catholic (29-5) or Male (31-4) would most likely await. No days at the beach there.

Then again, as Ashland radio voice Dicky Martin pointed out in mid-February after the Sweet Sixteen draw by region came out, "They've still gotta play us, too," and no one solved the Tomcats well enough to actually beat them this season.

Sports observers tend to be obsessed with rankings and legacy, largely fueled by the media. In this case, since Ashland can't match what its 1927-28 counterpart did in finishing an undefeated season with the title, maybe it's more instructive to simply appreciate what the Tomcats did this season than to try to figure out something unknowable and unprovable even if the state tournament had ended with Ashland left standing last.

What difference does it make if the 2019-20 Tomcats were the best team from around here?

Does it matter that they couldn't prove in a one-week setting that what they'd done for three months before that wasn't a mirage?

They played an entertaining, free-wheeling brand of basketball, emphasizing teamwork and finding the open shooter over making highlight-reel individual plays. They restored a sense of basketball royalty to a community that had ceded that status to other programs in the region until last season. And, as a T-shirt floating around town says, thus far, only a pandemic has been able to stop them.

"People that came to our games this year, players that were in our program this year, students at Blazer this year will always be able to say, that team was really cool, fun to watch, they played together, shot the ball really well and they were undefeated," Mays said. "This is cool — anybody from northeastern Kentucky will associate the COVID-19 pandemic (with us). They'll say, Ashland was undefeated this year and they didn't even get to go to the state tournament. There'll be people that our players will never ever meet, and they will discuss our basketball team for years about the pandemic and how it affected life.

"It's pretty remarkable because of the success we had and what we were not able to do from a state tournament standpoint."

Even if there is always a frustrating, melancholy air of unfinished business, and even if this discussion seems almost frivolous given current events, Ashland should be celebrated for what may prove to be its answer to Rick Pitino's "Unforgettables."

"It doesn't change, really, what matters," Mays said of the news of the canceled tournament. "It doesn't change that the relationships forged inside our locker room are way stronger than any state tournament success could've been, whether we would've been state champions or bowed out in the first round. The relationships in the locker room are stronger than any outcome that could've come from that."

Reach ZACK KLEMME at zklemme@dailyindependent.com. Follow @zklemmeADI on Twitter.

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