Monday, March 24, 2008

Advancing with Confidence

Davidson's head men's basketball coach Bob McKillop was quoted in the New York Times this past weekend with an appreciative simile that coaches and sport psychologists are bound to savor. "Confidence is very fragile. It's like glass. When it drops it can break into a lot of pieces."

Fortunately for McKillop and his hoopin' Wildcats, the only traces of anything shattered were the hearts of the highly favored Hoyas from Georgetown and the attempted defensive schemes of Gonzaga. When it came down to shutting down Davidson, opponents were left with fragments of glass in themselves. Everyone knows that Stephen Curry dropped 70 in two games, but what about how his teammates handled the pressure? Try these numbers: 18 assists and 14 turnovers in the first round and then, against one of the nation's top defenses, 10 dimes and only 5 TOs! Five! In fact, in round two, Davidson created 16 more field goal attempts for itself via valued possessions and offensive boards.

Most importantly, though, the team looked and played confidently. And the red-hot Curry was the five-star spice. In the same article, McKillop went on to say that sometimes during the year his team was "more plastic" and "didn't break into pieces." Well, they now resemble hints of armor and will need their newly-created coating as they head into the round of 16 to face yet another highly rated defensive team in Wisconsin.

Confidence can come in waves. As Davidson discovered, there was a splendid splash of it in North Carolina over the weekend. The team didn't drown in the 17-point deficit against Georgetown. Somehow, as all solid teams do, it managed to play each possession and create opportunities. The physical action influenced the psychological play, and shifted the momentum. But it was the mental stability to stay with the game plan that allowed the plays to manifest.

Confidence is critical for the 16 teams left, and the further away from fragile they are the more likely they are to advance. Easier said than...well...thought.

Doc's order of favorites, based on the weekend's performances, from armor to plastic:

North Carolina - a well-balanced diet
Kansas - hungry and fast munchin' 'hawks
Louisville - Pitino's pieces are sweet
West Virginia - out to prove they aren't crumbs
Michigan State - well prepped Spartans
Washington State - structured meal
Wisconsin - a foundation too good to pass up
Davidson - upgrade the dishes from plastic
...other tastes...
Western Kentucky


Unknown said...


For better or worse, student-athletes at MIT are required to use more than just a basketball brain. If the same mind used for the books is used for basketball, does this give academic powerhouses a mental edge on the court?

I ask this in authentic curiosity, but my (main) other motive is to hear your review of Stanford. (How come were part of the Sweet 16 that can't get no love?!)

Keep up the insightful thinking (and posting) . . . and good look on the shout out to esface!


Olatunde !!!

Dr. Oliver Eslinger said...

We often say we're the smartest team in the country (usually with a baffled tone and a look of bewilderment on our faces) when we make a mental error on the court. "Why would he make that pass?! This is MIT!" Unfortunately, a basketball IQ is not indistinguishable from an academic one. Just because one has a perfect SAT score and can complete a problem set in 30 minutes does not mean s/he can refuse one screen and then force a defender to trail as s/he comes off another screen shoulder to shoulder, catch, square-up, and follow through on a shot with ease.

You are right though. Stanford is tough, especially considering it doesn't necessarily get the same types of athletes that other schools do (the same situation is paramount at MIT and it can still compete with the best). There isn't much room for error, though, with squads that really do maximize their personnel. So, if I'm ranking mental toughness with scouted talent as a modifier, the Cardinal is certainly at the top. (Plus, I have much love for that program for various reasons!)

This particular post was based on scattered observations over four days of play (why can't we get TV access on CBS to every game?!). In no way does it necessarily categorize the long-term mentality of Stanford or any other team. True student-athletes who ball up are always at the top of my list.

Evans said...

I'm a bit surprised you didn't mention any of the psychological advantage Davidson had by playing in Raleigh. Do you think they could have beaten Georgetown in DC? anywhere besides NC?

Anyhow, too bad they can't play their second round in Charlotte like the Heels, meeting the Badgers in Detroit will test their mental toughness.

Dr. Oliver Eslinger said...

Interesting points. No doubt, staying close to home can give a team an advantage, probably more so simply because of the fatigue factor. Traveling a long way can be tough on student-athletes.

I often wonder about the significance of home court advantage (I wish we could control for the travel toll factor). Much is made about who has it, especially in the tournament. It seems that if a team can claim it has the HA, then it definitely has an A. Is it always an A to be at home, or close to home, though? Some athletes may feel more pressure to perform at home. After all, they are HOME and supposed to have the A and win. So, what is the A? Is it the fans, the positive energy, the familiarity with the facility? Did Stanford and UCLA both pull out wins because they played in California? Maybe so.

Some athletes actually prefer to play away from home. It frees their minds, allows them to focus on the game rather than their fans, and they use opposing audiences as ammunition. Still, other players' anxieties increase. I liken the debate to taking care of one's house. Yes, it is comfortable to be at home but sometimes it's a pain having to clean up (I'm sure I would be more motivated if there were some screaming fans rooting me on as I washed dished and folded laundry). There may be more internal pressure to defend home court, as in keeping the place/record spotless. During a visit to another's abode, no pressure right? It's the host's job to take care of it. I suppose it depends how it is interpreted. Some extend far beyond what they do when they are in someone else's place, which may even increase stress.

Would the Hoyas have lost in DC? Probably not. They didn't lose at home all year. I'd also suggest that they wouldn't lose in NC to Davidson again if they had another shot. But then, Davidson only lost two games at home all season...and those were to none other than...North Carolina and Duke by a combined total of ten points.

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