This concept is not hard to understand, but it constantly emerges in sports: Teams and athletes often have to generate their own energy.
The concept is almost too simple. Of course athletes need to create energy. The nuance in the idea is that it is based on more than merely working hard.
Saying athletes need to work hard is akin to saying that basketball games are decided by the team which makes more shots, or that football games are decided by turnovers. It is obvious to the point of lacking depth, originality or texture.
Naturally, coaches need to get their players to work hard, but there is so much involved in that central task. There is a lot of overlap between hard work and effective work, but the two are not one and the same thing. The marriage of hard work and effective work lies in being able to convince the player, “Doing THIS matters.”
Working hard but aimlessly doesn’t achieve much. The coaches who succeed in getting their players to play hard and well are the ones who show that the work leads to wins AND the full development of the athletes themselves. If an athlete knows that he is getting better AND his team is winning as a result of the coaching he receives, he will go to the wall for that coach.
Athletes will sometimes ask themselves inwardly, “Why should I do what the coach is asking?” If the coach can convince the athlete why he should do something with vigor and total commitment, the coach will create quality athletes and good teams.
This is where Mick Cronin has so often succeeded as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats. This is where Cronin has his work cut out for him this winter.
The quotes following East Carolina’s 73-71 upset of Cincinnati on Saturday in Greenville, N.C., before fewer than 4,500 spectators, had all the subtlety of a punch to the face.
“It’s a new era,” remarked ECU’s Jayden Gardner. “We practiced so hard, we worked so hard for this, so why not reward ourselves with wins?”
That’s a player who has totally bought into what his coach, Joe Dooley, is saying.
Contrast that with Cronin’s response to his team’s loss:
“The team that deserved to win won today,” Cronin said. “Their team had humility and we played with a lot of arrogance. We were too good to scrap and fight.”
A small crowd, an unsexy opponent, a lack of publicity or national TV cameras. Add those items together. They created a bored and uninspired Cincinnati team which could not generate its own energy.
This leads to a point the Bearcats and other teams in their position will have to understand over the next two months: Their opposition might not be flashy or attractive, but it will be formidable if no one in that locker room is willing to pay the price.
The AAC might have only two or three teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Few teams have particularly impressive resumes. Houston has done a good job of playing with hunger. Kelvin Sampson’s best teams at Washington State and Oklahoma did that. The Cougars will need to continue to carry that fire as they move through the South Floridas and UCFs and East Carolinas on the slate.
Cincinnati hasn’t yet grasped that lesson. The Bearcats — which lack an eye-popping resume — cannot continue to drift through AAC play and lose games they shouldn’t. UC didn’t beat Ohio State. It didn’t beat Mississippi State. It lacks a particularly impressive win and will need to mow down the AAC to solidify its NCAA Tournament status. Anything more than three losses to the lower tier of the AAC — if not counterbalanced by a win (or two) over Houston — could put the Bearcats in serious jeopardy of missing the Big Dance.
In less-than-full gymnasiums against NIT- or CBI-caliber opposition, Cincinnati will not gain outside energy from crowds or cameras. It will have to generate the energy within, rooted in the awareness of how urgent and inherently important each moment truly is.
This is not just a Cincinnati problem, either: Arizona State has this problem in the Pac-12, where every opponent it faces will be an inferior one. The Sun Devils will have to take themselves seriously, even if everyone else will accurately tell them that their opponents aren’t daunting. Bobby Hurley will have to get through to his guys and make them understand how every action on court crackles with significance.
This isn’t book learning; this is understanding something at a core level and applying it with great fidelity.
Nevada and Eric Musselman tasted this on Saturday against New Mexico. Kentucky might have felt it could coast a little in the SEC — the Wildcats did, after all, beat North Carolina and Louisville on consecutive weekends. Alabama reminded UK what it will take to be consistently strong this season.
Buffalo will run into this challenge in the MAC. Gonzaga usually handles this challenge in the WCC, but must do so again if it is to get the seeding and regional placement (West) it wants in March.
Creating energy from within: The concept is evident, but the layers involved in grasping it and applying it are subtle to the point of being elusive.
Just ask the Cincinnati Bearcats after a sleepy day in an off-the-radar college basketball locale turned into a stinging defeat.
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