Arizona Wildcats Hoops: Shooting Down Argument That Losing Is Good Before NCAAs
If a team or coach talks about pressure, they will undeniably feel it.
If they believe a loss is better before the end, than their goals become cheapened.
The Arizona Wildcats, Syracuse Orange and Wichita State Shockers are the first trio to start 20-0 in the same season since 1975-76, when the Indiana Hoosiers ran the table with a 32-0 record.
California coach Mike Montgomery, whose team hosts the Arizona Wildcats Saturday night, told Sports Illustrated that losing can be "productive" before the NCAA tournament for a team that is on a hot streak like Arizona.
Montgomery's Stanford teams in 2000-01 and 2003-04 started at least 20-0. The 2003-04 Cardinal team started 26-0 overall and 17-0 in the Pac-10 before losing the regular-season finale at Washington.
What good did that loss do for the Cardinal?
The Josh Childress-led Stanford team won the Pac-10 tournament and the NCAA first-round game against Texas-San Antonio before losing in the second round against Alabama. What if Stanford beat Washington in the last game? Would they have lost in the first round?
Winning it all or losing at least once before the NCAA tournament, like anything in life, is all about what you make of it.
"Knowing kids' psyche, knowing how the media responds to it, getting that (loss) off your back is probably something that can be productive for you," Montgomery told Sports Illustrated. "Ultimately, your goal is to win the championship in conference, get in the NCAAs and try to win the NCAAs, and ultimately that loss will have nothing to do with it, unless of course, it's in the tournament."
A team like the Arizona Wildcats can achieve those goals without experiencing a loss before March Madness. Indiana proved it can achieve the feat and so did six other champions, including four times by UCLA. If a loss is considered a good thing, then the process in which a team works on its improvement game-to-game, week-to-week is essentially meaningless.
The following slideshow provides five reasons that shoot down the theory that it is better for the Arizona Wildcats' psyche to lose before the NCAA tournament.
No. 5: End of Winning Streak Insignificant Because Sean Miller About Process
Nick Saban talks about it and so does his mentor Bill Belichick: The process.
If teams take care of their process, success will follow. The process does not include having to lose to be psychologically ready to win. It includes building from within. That can happen in an unbeaten season or one in which a team loses nine times, such as Arizona's 1996-97 national title season.
"I'm not naive enough to think winning isn't important," Saban said in a 2012 interview with CNN when asked about coaching Michigan State to an upset of No. 1 Ohio State in 1998.
"But what that game made me realize is how much better it is for people not to worry about the opposition but to focus on executing and know if they do their job correctly they're going to be successful, rather than thinking the other guy's going to determine the outcome."
Sean Miller has instilled in his players that what matters most is how they evolve in practice because that will pay dividends in the game. Defense begins in practice and ends with how his team shut down the opposition in the next game. The process then begins again.
Again, that will be Arizona's same premise if they go unbeaten in the regular season or if they lose a couple of games before the Pac-12 tournament.
"As you allow players to play with whether it be lack of concentration of lack of execution or effort, it starts to kind of become the way as opposed to getting better," Miller told USA Today earlier this month. "This year, no question about it, we're more aware of when that happens, we're going to correct it right then and there.
"If that means less playing time or a change, that's what we'll do. The bigger picture is we have to back up what we talk about. That's what we want to be an outstanding team."
No. 4: Winning the Championship Undefeated Happened Eight Times Before
If a team never won the title undefeated, then the argument would have more credence that the Arizona Wildcats should experience at least one loss before the postseason.
But going unscathed has happened seven times:
1976: Indiana (32-0)
1973: UCLA (30-0)
1972: UCLA (30-0)
1967: UCLA (30-0)
1964: UCLA (30-0)
1957: North Carolina (31-0)
1956: San Francisco (29-0)
The opposing argument: A team has not gone undefeated in 38 years.
Counter-argument: Everything is relative. Indiana went undefeated in 1975-76 with a target on its back similar to what Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State are facing now.
Bob Knight faced the same challenges that Sean Miller, Jim Boeheim and Gregg Marshall face today. Other than their talent level and coaching from Bob Knight, the Hoosiers did not have a built-in advantage over their opponents 38 seasons ago. They did not play five players against four, in other words.
College basketball has more parity with scholarship limits. NBA-level players can leave after one season, which balances the talent pool. Furthermore, transfer rates are increasing because of relaxed immediate eligibility requirements by the NCAA. That's why a team has not gone unbeaten in three decades.
That is not a factor for why it's better for a team psychologically to lose before the NCAA tournament. That is comparing apples to oranges because circumstances when UCLA went unbeaten four times under John Wooden are the same today.
The difference is Wooden could coach and his talent was supreme. Coaches like Mike Krzyzewski can go unbeaten today. The difference is the competition level is more balanced.
But what about those undefeated teams playing less games overall and before the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 games? Again, they achieved the unbeaten season with the circumstances and conditions of that era. They did not need a loss to jump-start their potential title season.
No. 3: Since When Is Losing a Good Thing?
Losing a good thing matters.
Losing a game is not a good thing for intense competitors.
People may say that a loss will make Arizona, Syracuse and Wichita State hungrier. My argument is they are hungry to begin with to go most of the first three months of the season unbeaten.
UNLV, as the defending NCAA champion in 1990-91, was 34-0 before losing to Duke in the Final Four. The Blue Devils only won by two points. The game was tightly contested. UNLV didn't crumble in the face of adversity because it was 34-0. Mike Krzyzewski's team, which won the championship, was tough to crack.
A loss in the regular season would not have mattered to the Running Rebels psychologically. Jerry Tarkanian claims he and his staff never talked about going 36-0 that year.
"It's really difficult to go undefeated," Tarkanian told ESPN.com in a 2009 interview. "In the regular season, you know whoever you get is giving you their best effort and then when you get to the NCAAs, all the focus is on you. We never talked about it. Never. But everyone else did."
Stealing a line from Herm Edwards: You play to win the game.
You don't play to avoid a loss or with the ramifications of losing in mind. That defeats the purpose.
No. 2: Close Games Make Wildcats Tougher
The Arizona Wildcats rank fourth nationally in winning margin (17.4), but they have experienced their fair share of close games, especially on the road, which is far better than having to lose to wake up.
Arizona's average margin of victory away from McKale Center in Tucson is only 6.4 points. That is including a 20-point victory at USC, but that game was close with less than 10 minutes remaining.
The Wildcats have won away from Tucson by six points or less against Drexel, Duke, Michigan, UCLA and Stanford.
The ramifications of a team winning tight games on the road is much more valuable than losing one to gain an edge psychologically.
Arizona coach Sean Miller has learned his seven-player rotation has the resolve and resourcefulness to answer intense challenges with victories serving as a positive reinforcement.
Utah is a significant example that losing does not help any, especially in close games. Four of the Utes' five Pac-12 losses are by four points or less.
If Arizona is able to handle the pressure at places like San Diego State, Michigan and UCLA, it should be able to handle the difficult task of winning games in the NCAA tournament whether the Wildcats lose in the regular season or not.
No. 1: Arizona Knows It Has Yet to Play Best Basketball
The argument that Arizona must lose a game to gain a competitive edge for the NCAA tournament does not factor what each player is challenged with in each game.
Arizona's players are not satisfied or complacent because they are winning. If anything, they are more challenged to become better because they have much work to do. The highly-competitive Sean Miller keeps hitting that home with them.
To think that Arizona must lose to gain a focus means that Aaron Gordon is fine with shooting 44.9 percent from the free-throw line or a shockingly low 47.4 percent from the field. With his athleticism and size (6'9" and 225 pounds), Gordon should be shooting closer to 60 percent from the field.
He has made only 5-of-23 attempts from the field in the last two wins against Utah and Stanford. He does not need a loss to make him realize he can perform better than that.
As great as Nick Johnson has performed this season, he knows he can shoot better than 38.7 percent from three-point range or have a better assist-to-turnover ratio (53 assists and 39 turnovers).
Kaleb Tarczewski has only one blocked shot in his last three games. He has made only two field-goal attempts in the last two games.
Brandon Ashley has a tendency to have a subpar game in the midst of solid performances. T.J. McConnell can improve upon his three-point shooting percentage (34 percent).
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can be unstoppable attacking the basket, but he is shooting only 46.7 percent from the field. Gabe York is a better shooter from three-point range than 40.9 percent.
The rest of the bench, especially the only senior, Jordin Mayes, can be much more productive.
In short, Arizona does not need a loss to make it know it can be better.