When people talk about sports — and I don’t exempt myself from this tendency — they typically refer to losses as the kinds of moments a team or athlete doesn’t recover from.
To be clear, most (if not all) of us are not wrong to focus on crushing disappointments as the occurrences which send seasons plummeting into the abyss. Usually, this IS how a quest is derailed. It makes complete sense to view the dispiriting, hope-sapping, confidence-ruining thunderclaps of a season as the times when the venture goes wrong.
This is not an attempt to overturn or refute that line of thought.
The purpose of this Sunday column — after another wild Saturday of college hoops — is to underscore the point that devastating losses aren’t the only events which take a season off the tracks.
Sometimes athletes falter because they fear success, not failure. DePaul blows late leads. Arizona State beats Kansas but then crumbles against far weaker opposition in the Pac-12. These are just a few examples of teams which demonstrate a certain degree of on-court acumen but lose their nerve in what should be favorable situations. Their talents shine through… but not when success is close at hand. That is different from fearing to fail. Fear cuts in various directions.
So it also is that much as athletes can fear success as well as failure, teams can be derailed by victory just as much as defeat.
Look around college basketball right now, and you will see a number of fresh examples at the end of another week.
Iowa State has had chances to push Kansas for the Big 12 title in recent years, but there always seems to be a loss which should not happen — generally at home in Hilton Coliseum — and hijacks the Cyclones’ aspirations of stopping one of the more remarkable streaks in college sports. That loss occurred to Baylor a few seasons ago. It occurred to Kansas State this past Saturday in Ames, a few days after Iowa State lost at Baylor. A decisive romp over Kansas a week ago has been wiped out by these two setbacks. This is exactly how Bill Self gets to smile in the first week of March every year, owning a share of his conference’s crown.
Iowa State hasn’t just manifested this tendency in past years; it is continuing to show that after a beatdown of Kansas, it can’t stay the course. What happens after a mountaintop moment is just as important as the things that happen after being knocked to the bottom of a very low valley.
Other teams share ISU’s identity and position:
Remember when New Mexico hammered Nevada by 27 points? Holy cow, Paul Weir’s team made a massive statement about what it was capable of.
Its next two games have been disasters, a home loss to UNLV and a no-defense loss on Saturday against Colorado State. Lobo fans hoped that Nevada game would become a catapult for the season. Instead it became an endpoint after which New Mexico has found it extremely hard to stay motivated and focused. Combining one quality win with a bunch of bad losses is how many a college basketball team over the years has missed the NCAA Tournament in spite of memorable performances against strong opponents.
Alabama is also part of this dynamic.
Avery Johnson’s team got up for Kentucky a week ago and led the Wildcats by double figures late in the second half before holding on for a win at the buzzer when a UK 3-point attempt missed. Alabama is a veteran team, so it was reasonable to think that the Crimson Tide would turn the page and take care of business this next week — if not at LSU, at least at home against Texas A&M.
Nope — Alabama went 0-2 and fell to the struggling Aggies at home. A season which was briefly on the right track is now behind schedule once more.
On a smaller scale — meaning only one game instead of two or three — North Carolina followed its very impressive road win at North Carolina State with a total clunker on Saturday at home against Louisville. A UNC squad which has been the picture of inconsistency throughout the season might have thought that it had figured out how to bring its A-game on a regular basis. Now it realizes how far it still is from its goal — and from Roy Williams’ expectations.
These losses aren’t final verdicts on a season for Iowa State, New Mexico, Alabama, and North Carolina. There are still two months left in the season, time for shaky habits to become more solid, for erratic tendencies to become reliable and tested basketball virtues. These losses aren’t unacceptable — not in January, when the evolution of a team and a season is still taking shape. Such losses hold up a mirror to these four teams and other teams in similar positions. They call on coaches and athletes to relearn how to deal not only with a year’s failures, but its successes.
A reset button is important not just in moments of defeat, but also in moments of victory. Iowa State, New Mexico, Alabama, and UNC all failed to hit that reset button after recent signature wins. Now they get to reset after a loss.
In time, they will need to deal with both ends of the competitive spectrum.
They hope to live on the sunny side of that dynamic more often than not. How they process this past week will have a lot to do with their ultimate outcomes this season.
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