Saturday, April 4, 2015

Kentucky's Final Four Loss As Explained By John Wooden

Like everybody else I was surprised by Kentucky's 71-64 loss in the NCAA basketball championship semi-final game.  They were a perfect 38-0 this season, ranked #1 in the polls since the first week of the season, and had talent comparable to some NBA teams.  But I wasn't as surprised as most people, as I told my friends all week that there was one factor that could stop Kentucky from going all the way--that 38 game winning streak.

Everybody knows legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden both as one of the greatest coaches ever, and also as one of the most insightful minds ever associated with athletics with sagacious observations both as to life and athletics.  In my opinion the most insightful thing he said, and probably considered heretical by most people with associated sports is that under the proper circumstances, a loss may actually be a good thing for a competitor's experience.  In particular, when a team is on a long winning streak, he noted that the quality of its performance begins to diminish.  Wooden referred to winning streaks as becoming burdensome, which often leads up to an unexpected losing performance. It's not clear exactly why, but it's probably a combination of different factors.    Maybe the team starts playing not to lose, rather than trying to win, with keeping the streak alive becoming a distraction, whether conscious or not.  Maybe the team becomes overconfident.  Maybe opponents dig down deeper.  Maybe it's something totally subliminal.  And even if the team with the winning streak continues to win, quite often it's clear that the team is laboring under the pressure of the streak.  (Perhaps an explanation of Kentucky's close win over Notre Dame in its previous game.)  But whatever the reason, it is not unusual for teams on long winning streaks to stub their toe against an opponent that seemingly doesn't match up.

Now if the loss is suffered in a relatively meaningless game, the loss can be beneficial, as in today's parlance it's like hitting a reset button and you can again return to your former level of excellence.  But if that loss occurs in the sudden death NCAA tournament, it can't be remedied.  To me it's clear that if Kentucky had suffered a loss, say during the SEC tournament, that there's no way that anyone would have come close to them during the NCAA tournament and they would have sailed to the championship.

Of course things are a little more complicated than saying teams are more susceptible to a loss when on a winning streak, as there have been some impressive winning streaks in sports history.  One corollary rule is if you are vastly superior to your opponent, that opponent won't beat you no matter how badly you play.  Given that the college basketball season ends with the sudden death NCAA tournament, entering the tournament on a long winning streak is not a good thing, as the team will be facing a string of high calibre opponents.  No wonder why there hasn't been an undefeated NCAA basketball champion since 1976. (Remember that great unbeaten early 90s UNLV team?)  Another corollary is that consecutive wins from a prior season probably shouldn't count because each year's team is a different entity.  And of course, if two teams with long winning streaks meet, one of them will have to win.

Indeed one sees the effect of the winning streak phenomenon every year in college football.  Around the eighth week of the season there are often several unbeaten teams, many of which project out as going unbeaten for the rest of the year based on the calibre of their remaining opponents.  "Oh my gosh," pundits exclaim.  "It will be chaotic if the regular season ends with so many unbeaten teams."   But every year the season ends, and there's usually no more than one unbeaten team left, the others suffering upset losses at the hand of underdogs.

So yes, a loss can be therapeutic.  In John Wooden's last season as UCLA coach in 1975, they suffered a humiliating 21 point loss to a mediocre Washington team near the end of the regular season.  Now they weren't on a long winning streak at the time. But after that loss many observers concluded that the 1975 UCLA team wasn't that good and it wasn't going far in the NCAA tournament.  But indeed that team did win it all with some great play in the NCAA tournament.

John Wooden was also remarkable because he really didn't care whether his teams won or not, just that they played to their potential, so different from the winning is everything mentality we see all over sports.  And perhaps it is this mentality that obscures the truth that a loss might just do you good under the right circumstances, and help you win when it really counts.

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