Cross-posted on TNR's blog, Posting Up:
Ben raises a number of questions. Here are some thoughts:
--Preparation Doesn’t Begin on Selection Sunday.
Coach Carril was focused on small details. For instance, from the first day of practice in October, he would say, over and over, “throw it to him right.”
What he meant by this was, when you are passing to an open teammate (and if he was open, the ball was expected to go to him), the ball needed to be delivered so that he could be ready to make a play, and not have to reach across his body or jump to catch it. In other words, the ball needed to be delivered into an area above the waist, and on his correct (shooting) side, so your teammate could step naturally into his shot, even if he elected not to do so (because it was “too early” in the shot clock, for instance.)
If the ball were too high, or on your teammate’s non-shooting side, he may be able to catch it, but in doing so, the defender could recover, and what had been an open shot opportunity would become, at best, an off-balance or contested one. Focusing on the details like ‘throwing-it-right’ mattered when you were practicing because it mattered when you were playing a game; and it certainly mattered when you were playing a faster, more athletic opponent.
Will such a small detail make any difference? Maybe, if the game is close and you have a chance at the end. But the point is that you have to be working on such a small detail all year, not just Tournament week.
Attention to details like this was one of Coach Carril’s philosophies; for more, you can read his book.
--A “Neutral” Crowd
When you play at a mid-major or small school, you often play elite Division I opponents early in the season, but the difference in the Tournament is that instead of playing these teams on their home floor (elite teams rarely want to play at a mid-major’s gym), you get a chance to play them on a more-or-less neutral floor.
If you are an underdog, that means that a “neutral” crowd will often get behind you. The truly neutral fans who are at the game generally pull for the underdog, or might have some other reason to root against the favorite, and because of the way the NCAA groups games together, the other fans in building (i.e. those whose teams either have just played, or are about to play) also have an interest in seeing Goliath (i.e., the High Seed) defeated; they’ll take their chances with you, the Low Seed, in the next round.
For example, in 1990, we played Arkansas on the home floor of the Texas Longhorns; the site was a lot closer to Fayetteville than Princeton. But at the time, both teams were bitter rivals in the old Southwest Conference (SWC), and Razorbacks Coach Nolan Richardson was about as popular in Austin as a vegetarian at a cattle ranchers’ convention. Of the thousands of people in the arena that night, most were pulling for an upset by the end of the game. (Arkansas won, 68-64, and eventually went to the Final Four that year.)
That being said, the NCAA changed the seeding system a few years ago to the current “pod” system, which protects the highest seeds from the vagaries of a “neutral” crowd. But watch what happens this week if #13-seed Albany plays well in Columbus, OH against UVa, or if Davidson (also a #13) looks good against Maryland in Buffalo.
--Play the First Round, First
Finally, Ben asked about how a Low Seed treats the reality of its slim chances to win. As last season showed with George Mason (an #11 seed; the Ivy champ has been at least as high as an #11-seed four times in the last decade), a mid-major or small school doesn’t have to win the national championship to have a successful tournament. If you are playing well – and by definition, you need to play well to have any chance to beat a High Seed in the First Round -- anything can happen.