Does Kentucky need to lose to win it all?
There’s a way of thinking out there that, if Kentucky’s goal is to win the national championship, it needs to drop a game in the SEC tournament in order to get all that undefeated talk off its back.
It’s the sort of pop psychology that dominates sports talk radio: To get better, to win it all, this team needs to lose a game to realize its flaws and improve on them — a dunk-in-cold-water shock of reality that a national championship isn’t going to come so easily.
I think the very premise is hogwash. That a group of motivated, team-oriented NBA-level talents in the middle of an historic run would suddenly become better prepared if 31-0 turned into 31-1 seems the most patently ridiculous way of thinking possible. It’s as if people spouting this nonsense haven’t paid attention to all the near-losses Kentucky has had — games that were up in the air in the final minute, in overtime, in double-overtime. As if those games, in which Kentucky was down in the second half in a hostile road environment, weren’t the character-builders these pop psychologists are referring to when they say they say Kentucky needs to lose in order to win.
This Kentucky team isn’t the undefeated UNLV of 1990-91, which won its games by an average of 27.3 points until it finally faced adversity against Duke in the Final Four and crumbled. Sure, Kentucky has had its share of blowout wins — its average margin of victory is 21.2 points, the largest in college hoops — but it’s mixed in a slew of games in which a sluggish first half bled into a dicey second half. And every time, the Wildcats pulled it out.
But I didn’t want my gut reaction to cloud what might be a fair point.
So I called up a few sport psychologists to ask about this theory. And we ended up having some revealing talks about the psychology of being undefeated, about head coach John Calipari’s reputation as a master of getting his players think the way they need to think and about the true nature of this team’s greatness.
For the most part, the experts validated my gut reaction about Kentucky needing to lose a game now in order to win the championship later.
“Totally, totally absurd, just off the wall,” Dr. Jack J. Lesyk, the director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology and a sport psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers, told me. “People can’t accept the uncertainty of a game that’s yet to be played. That’s what makes sports interesting. Talking about it, predicting it, then analyzing it after … . It’s only after the fact, when you have had failure, and the only thing you can do is extract benefit from that and turn it into a learning example (that a loss helps). When (a loss) does happen, you certainly want to extract the lesson.”
What he means: Kentucky could learn a lesson from a loss. But that doesn’t mean Kentucky needs to lose in order to learn a lesson.
That’s where the cliché comes in. Take it one day at a time. One game at a time. One possession at a time.
Don’t play to become the national champion. Don’t play to go undefeated. Don’t focus on the big picture.
Focus on the smallest picture possible, and the big picture will be there to enjoy at the end.
“The historical aspects won’t be lost on them,” said Dr. John Coumbe-Lilley, a clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois who has studied mental skills training for athletes. “Once 40-0 is done once — and I hope it is — it can never be repeated because they’ll be the first. It’s not just for their lifetime. It’s for forever. It’s literally that big. If they can pull it off, the long-term benefits to the boys and the program and to people associated with it will be enormous. You can’t really put a price on that.”
But knowing the scope of what they’re chasing also means they must know every game on the road to that goal is precious.
“Cal is really a case study — as we’ve seen with other coaches in basketball, with (Mike) Krzyzewski in the college game or Phil Jackson or Pat Riley in the pro game — of coaches who’ve been able to bring quality players together, finding all the ingredients, but then getting the players in a position where they can be themselves, express themselves, and do that together in an environment where it’s respected by their teammates,” Coumbe-Lilley said. “It goes way beyond management here. You’re talking about a guy who needs to show leadership every day, to the press, to the internal and external stakeholders, to his team and to his own family. He’s reaching the top of his performance as well.”
I asked Lesyk, the sport psychologist for the Cleveland Cavaliers, what he’d say to the Kentucky players if Calipari brought him in to talk with them.
He had a great answer.
He’d show them the famous scene from “Hoosiers,” in which the wide-eyed boys from tiny Hickory High School walk into the enormous Hinkle Fieldhouse, where they are about to play for the state championship. Coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, sees how intimidated his team is by the largeness and the history of the moment. He pulls out a tape measure. He measures the free-throw line to the basket: 15 feet. He measures the hoop to the floor: 10 feet.
“I think you’ll find it’s the exact same measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” the coach tells his small-town players.
It’s one of my favorite scenes in sports movie history, and it should resonate with this Kentucky team as it chases real-life history. You make history by ignoring the historical implications surrounding each game on the way to history.
“You take the concept, and you shrink it down to where it’s familiar,” Lesyk said. “That’s what you know. Focus on what you’re familiar with, not what’s different, the size of audience and all the hoopla and all the history.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.