KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) The last of the unbeaten, Wichita State has just three games remaining before it enters the Missouri Valley tournament – three games left in its regular-season pursuit of perfection.
The question worth pondering: Would it behoove the Shockers to lose one?
They’re trying to become the first team since Saint Joseph’s in 2004 to enter their conference tournament unbeaten, and the first team to make the NCAA tournament without a loss since UNLV in 1991. Neither of those teams went on to win the national championship.
Article continues below ...
That hasn’t happened since Indiana finished off a perfect season in 1976, of course – a sign of just how difficult it is to deal with the mounting pressure of flawlessness.
And that’s why some coaches harbor this most unnatural of feelings: They would just as soon lose a game that ultimately doesn’t matter so that they can learn from their mistakes, hit refresh on the season and enter the win-or-go-home sweepstakes with one less distraction.
Yes, coaches programmed to win at nearly any cost might actually relish a loss.
”I think it’s hard for teams to be great unless they go through some crap,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose Jayhawks started 20-0 when they won the 2008 national championship.
Kansas lost to Oklahoma State five games before the Big 12 tournament, which it ultimately won with ease. That gave the Jayhawks plenty of momentum – without the attention of a long winning streak – to ultimately knock off Memphis in the national title game.
If he was in Wichita State’s situation, Self said, ”I’d coach to win every game as hard as possible, but I would really enjoy any adversity that’s thrown my way while trying to do it.”
The Shockers (28-0) have certainly faced adversity.
They trailed by 19 in the second half against Missouri State, the final team left on Wichita State’s regular-season schedule, before rallying for an overtime win. In fact, the Shockers have trailed at halftime regularly this season, only to scrape their way to victories.
”They’re very level-headed, mature,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, offering an explanation for how they’ve managed to do it. ”They just go out and take care of their business.”
Sounds simple, right? It’s much harder in practice.
In the last 10 years, every team that’s won a national championship has either lost in its conference tournament or within the final eight games of their regular season slate. That includes Louisville, which lost to Notre Dame late last season before winning the Big East title, and Kentucky, which two years ago had won 24 straight games before getting tripped up by Vanderbilt in the SEC championship game.
In 2011, UConn lost seven of its final 11 regular-season games, putting its NCAA tournament hopes in jeopardy. The Huskies wound up winning five games in five days to capture the Big East title, and then kept that momentum going all the way to the national title.
One coach who subscribes to the reset theory is Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who led Illinois to a 29-0 start in 2005. The Illini lost to Ohio State in their final game before the Big Ten tournament, won that title with ease, and then marched to the national finals, where they fell to North Carolina in a 75-70 nail-biter.
”It was good for us to lose to Ohio State,” Weber recalled. ”We got to go and focus on what we wanted to do, and that’s get to the Final Four. There wasn’t the talk about perfection.”
Not every coach believes there are merits to losing.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose top-ranked Orange won their first 25 games, bristled after their first loss this week when asked whether it was a ”wake-up call.”
”Players are wide awake. That’s bull,” Boeheim said after the loss to Boston College, adding: ”There’s no pressure. There’s pressure if you don’t have enough wins. That’s pressure.”
Still, the Orange can now turn their attention to their national title pursuit, rather than juggling that with answering questions about their pursuit of perfection.
”Usually you lose a game after five or 10 or 15 and you have to make adjustments,” Boeheim said. ”Now we’ve lost a game and we have to see how we react to that.”
It’s a good question – one that Wichita State hasn’t had to ask yet this season.