Monday, October 11, 2010

Murphy’s Law and NU Athletics

It’s almost time for basketball practice to start and most fans are pretty excited. In the wake of the football team’s loss to Purdue, though, my thoughts on the coming season are suddenly focused more on avoiding disappointment than I thought they would have been. I like to think I’m a realist and I know NU will have a tough road to the NCAA Tournament this year, but I also think they have a good shot. However, thinking back over my NU fandom, despite the fact that I’ve seen four basketball postseason teams and six bowl games in football, I still feel as though NU sports live by one law…Murphy’s.

Despite the success needed to reach those postseason dates, NU has only won once in them and has failed to succeed in a number of key regular season games that might have improved their postseason fate. I don’t want to rehash bad memories, but I’ll highlight football at Iowa in 2000 and basketball at Ohio State in 2009 as games which likely kept NU from the Rose Bowl and the NCAA Tournament respectively. The basketball team is 0-2 when ranked and the football is 1-9 when ranked since 2000. Neither of those two stats is good. A friend suggested NU impose a poll ban on itself. I don’t think it’s such a bad idea.

The question that I’m left asking myself is what causes Northwestern’s highest profile teams (football and men’s basketball) to find ways to fail whenever attention seems to get paid to them. Part of me even wonders if it is the fault of us as fans who start to believe the little hype which exists and if that somehow translates to the players and makes them overconfident. I don’t think that’s it, but some level of overconfidence might play a role. After all, these are kids who range in age from 18-23. When people start to tell them how good they are, they might start to believe it a little too easily. If I’m Bill Carmody or Pat Fitzgerald I’m starting to guard against that very closely given the past few years.

Some people will simply say NU’s problem with success is they aren’t that good to start with. That they have a way of being lucky, but luck catches up to less talented teams. I have trouble with that. At some point if you’re successful it ceases to be luck. Winning close games is a skill in itself. A skill that comes from having a team with talented players and good coaches.

This is a good Northwestern basketball team. John Shurna deserves to be mentioned as a top candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year and Juice Thompson might be the best point guard in the league (don’t laugh, it might be true). However, NU will face a Big Ten with a ton of other good players and the ‘Cats aren’t so stocked with talent they can take games off or even moments of games off. They have to focus the entire time.

In the end, I think that’s what makes lesser talented teams who win all the time able to do so. Focus. They play every play with a sense of urgency because they know they can’t afford to let up. You want people to believe they are good, but at some point realizing that they player across from you is just as good as you counts for a lot as well. It might even make you better because you’re then working harder to beat him than he is to beat you.

That’s how Northwestern needs to play in both football and men’s basketball. When they’re successful that IS how they play. The effort Bill Carmody’s teams showed last year at home against Illinois and Purdue was amazing. NU never let up on intensity (thanks in part I think to great crowds). On the other hand, in that 2009 Ohio State game I mentioned above and last year’s game at Wisconsin (key games for postseason bids) NU came out with a notable lack of intensity. Almost as if they were just happy to be there. They then got way down and woke up and made a furious comeback with great intensity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. At least those were against good teams, though. The same result played out against weaker competition in Iowa and Penn State last season. On those nights NU was a team that looked unfocused and undisciplined for most of the game and wasn’t trying to play harder than the other guys for 40 minutes. They looked more like a team that thought they would win, but didn’t want to work too hard to make it happen. I think the football equivalent played out against Purdue Saturday night.

The real crime of NU’s Murphy’s Law athletic department isn’t indivudal losses or disappointed fans, though. The real crime is the players on the court/field are good enough to get to the NCAA Tournament or the Rose Bowl. They just need to play like it all the time and not let anything else get in the way.

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