Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Butler Didn't Do It

There are a number of ways to analyze last night's NCAA basketball title game in which Duke nipped Butler 62-60 in one of the best championship games ever. You could say it was a classic game in which one team randomly had to prevail. You could say that Duke was clearly better in light of the huge partisan crowd rooting for Butler that it had to contend with, or the fact that actually Duke was in control because it led the game most of the way. You could also say that Duke's rebounding and defense was more impressive.

However, I'd like to take a different approach. I think that Duke won because the pressure of a long winning streak took its toll on Butler. While winning 25 games in a row may seemingly give you momentum going into a title game, history has shown that winning streaks exert a strong negative influence on a team's performance. Some of the most surprising upsets in sports history were inflicted on apparently dominant teams on a long winning streak, e.g. New England Patriots. Perhaps the best known proponent of this thought is John Wooden, who once shockingly stated that a loss can be good for a team, particularly when it's on a long winning streak, because the stress of maintaining that streak, whether or not consciously, will at some point overshadow the quality of a team's play. However, according to Coach Wooden, once the pressure of the streak is broken, the team can be itself again. Clearly, Butler's play suffered in its two final four contests, particularly in the second half of each game where its offense at times became non-existent. It's a credit to them that they held on against Michigan State and came thisclose to winning it all against Duke. But I have a feeling that if they had lost a game somewhere in the middle of their winning streak, we'd be now celebrating the improbable run of the NCAA champions from Butler.

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