Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Seth Davis is an Idiot!
"It's starting to feel like déjà vu all over again. February has begun, and only two teams remain undefeated. We look at their schedules, pour over the history and wonder if they can finish the regular season undefeated. Soon we start to wonder if they can actually win an NCAA championship without a blemish.
Last year it was Stanford and Saint Joseph's. Now we have Illinois and Boston College. Illinois' win streak could very well end tonight when the Illini play Michigan State in East Lansing. If they get past the Spartans, Illinois still must beat Wisconsin at home and Iowa on the road. BC, meanwhile, hosts West Virginia tonight still to come are home games against Syracuse and Pittsburgh and road dates with Notre Dame and Villanova. It won't be easy to run those tables, but these squads have proven they can make tough shots.
I'm not as interested in the can-they questions as much as the big should-they question, as in: Do you really want to go into the NCAA Tournament undefeated?
My answer to that is no -- unequivocally, immutably, unquestionably, no. The last team to win a championship without a loss was Indiana in 1976. There's a reason nobody has done this in 29 years. It's hard enough to win six games in the tournament without having to wear the undefeated mantle. BC and Illinois can think of me as the anti-Nike: Just don't do it.
I'm not just talking about the difference between zero losses and one loss here. I'm talking about the natural ebb and flow that needs to take place for a team to peak at just the right time to win a title. Any team that chases an undefeated regular season runs the risk of burning out its emotional engine in mid-February. If you somehow make it through the regular season without losing, you then have to regenerate yourself to win your conference tournament -- usually three games in three days. Can you imagine how hard it is to regenerate yourself again for the NCAAs? Just when you need to be at your best, everybody's pooped.
Last season, Stanford topped out in late February, finishing the regular season by edging Washington State by three points at home before falling to Washington in the finale. The Cardinal did win the Pac-10 tournament but was defeated in the NCAA second round by Alabama. Saint Joseph's, meanwhile, achieved a perfect regular season before being blitzed by Xavier in the first round of the Atlantic-10 tournament. People criticized the Hawks for that, but the loss gave them some much-needed rest, which I believe helped them reach the Elite Eight.
Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli told me this week that he believed his Hawks probably would not have been as prepared to compete in the NCAAs if they had played three straight days in the A-10 tournament. While he rejected my just-don't-do-it argument -- "Even as a high school coach, I never understood the idea that you can learn more from losing than winning," he said -- he did concede that there is a significant burden that comes with being undefeated in late February. "You become larger than life," Martelli said. "You get to a point where so many people ask you whether you can [finish undefeated], it can be a distraction if you're centered on that.
"Admittedly so, life would have been easier in some ways if we had lost," he continued. "But you start to realize that we're passing a way that few teams have ever gone. You want to grab that moment."
I understand the competitor's credo that you must always play to win, and I would never suggest that Illinois or Boston College go into a game intending to lose. But history does not dole out great moments so easily. The undefeateds should make sure they're reaching for the right one.