Posted on: February 16, 2009 6:47 pm
Edited on: February 19, 2009 10:46 pm

Are the Heels tough enough to Win the NC?

In another blog post on Toughness we talked about the kind of thinking that makes teams difficult to beat.  This blog has also mentioned that winning is a state of mind, and that psychological preparation , especially visualization, plays an outlandish role in winning.  It is very difficult to win, however that is defined, if the team is not convinced it can be done and the unconscious mind has not been given a chance to dwell on it. The 1993 Tarheel National Championship team developed a lot of toughness over the season.  There are two facts here that are germaine to the 2009 Tarheels .

First, the role of positive imagery must be emphasized.  In 1993 Dean Smith doctored a 1982 picture that said, 'Congratulations North Carolina, 1982 national champions' showing on the scoreboard at the end of the game.  Smith says, "It dawned on me, let's put that in everybody's locker. We won't tell anybody, just our team. We changed the 1982 to 1993 and marked out Georgetown's name so the opponent wasn't visible and the players had that waiting for them when practice started."  Those pictures were in each player's locker all season long.  While many of the 2009 Tarheels have a very negative loss to Kansas to spur them on this year, I hope they have a very positive image which they have been working with throughout this year.  A team's mental prowess does not recover lightly from such a loss.

Second, the 1993 team had to grow into its toughness, especially Donald Williams.  The team was not beset by All Stars or future NBA players eptimomized by the Michigan team.  The good news was their team play.  Scoring was fairly balanced and they benefited from both post and perimeter threats although Donald Williams could not seem to shake his streaky shooting.  They did overcome a 19 point deficit to FSU to win in the Dean Dome but immediately came up flat and lost 2 games in a row.  And while they won the regular season quite handily, Williams shot 4-of-18 in the ACC championship game that year, and 3-of-12 from beyond the three-point line, enroute to a loss to Georgia Tech that surprised everyone.

But the team soldiered on through the tournament.  Each game they stepped up their already steady play.  Perhaps it was really Reese and Lynch who best marked a team that did more than just produce more points than normal on any given night.  They began rebounding and playing defense at key moments when the team really needed it.  And Williams' shot became ever more dependable.

The Tarheels were on fire by the time it met Michigan in the finals.  They did all the little things that make a team tough.  But they also did the big things.  And Williams had become a player oblivious to pressure.  Time after time Williams sunk his shot when he was open.  And there is no doubt in my mind that given the Webber technical or not the game was going to the Tarheels.  They were mentally prepared and would not be denied.

In the Miami vs. UNC game here in 2009 we saw the same kind of toughness developing in this UNC team.  While Hansbrough has always had it, Green just showed up as a tough player this year.  He owes us an explanation on how that occurred.  But on the perimeter it has been Lawson , not Ellington , that is complimenting Green when we most need the 3 pointer.  Like Williams in '93, Lawson's perimeter shot has become more consistent as the year progresses.  And sooner or later every team needs outside pressure, especially when opponents double and triple team Hansbrough.  Last year, shutting down Hansbrough might have beat UNC.  This year Lawson and Green make that strategy a weak one.  And it is Ellington and Frazor and Thompson who are picking up errant rebounds, getting put-backs, and making the extra pass that are rounding out a team that finally trusts each other to step it up when it counts.

The 2009 Tarheels have come a long way this year.  Hopefully their mental progress is positive enough to carry them all the way to the NC.  They had the talent to do it last year but were not mentally ready.  The Miami game shows that at least three of them are ready now.

Posted on: January 24, 2009 3:20 pm

Inconsistency in College basketball

Part of what makes college basketball so fun to watch is the difficulty in choosing winners.   Inevitably, top 10 teams lose to teams with mediocre records at best.  March Madness structure feeds this excitement.  There are arguably many factors:

  1. PLAYER INCONSISTENCY: most college players' games vary widely in quality.
  2. NATIONAL ATTENTION: it's difficult not to allow the lights to affect your play at this age.
  3. HOME COURT ADVANTAGE: some courts are very difficult to play in on any given night.
  4. FAULTY GAME PLANS GO UNALTERED: coaches sometimes make plans that don't work; even fewer of them alter them during the game.
  5. TEAM CULTURE AND PRE-GAME PREPARATION: some teams perennially have less confidence than others, and under-perform in pressure situations.

There are undoubtedly others.

The interesting thing is that there are mainly two categories of issues in the above list; player psychology, and the coach's affect on the team. At this level of play, rarely do we see that a lack of physical preparedness hurts a team.  Most have training, nutrition, and even tutors to ensure physical fitness.

What is interesting is that the most important muscle, the brain, still gets relatively little attention.  Two quick stories; our high school basketball team ran an experiment; half our players shot 100 foul shots a night, while half of us visualized foul shots for 15 minutes every night before practice.  Guess who's foul shot percentage was best during the games. This experiment mirrors a much more famous one that showed mental visualization as important as physical practice in determining FS and FG percentages. 

Team and self-visualization has the potential to make a hugely significant difference in affecting numbers 1, 2, 3 and to some extent 5 above.  Why is it not given more attention?

My favorite example comes from my alma mater: the UNC Tarheels.  Wayne Ellington is a notoriously streaky shooter.  His struggles with his shot have daunted him every one of his 3 years at Chapel Hill.  His stats confirm that he most often goes cold in high pressure games, although every interestingly, he nearly always as huge success against Clemson.  Perhaps there is something about the team, or his memories of past successes, that give him a secure feeling.  The interesting thing about Ellington is that he never has an issue shooting during practice; his team mates affirm that his play during practice is nothing short of awe inspiring, and he is perhaps the best pure shooter they have ever seen.  What then, is the issue during the game?

Ellington represents the perfect example of someone who would benefit from very specific and enduring mental exercises that research and resolve in-game success.  Timing is also important.  Visualizations can be performed before sleep, before practice, and maybe most importantly, just before game time.  After 3 years, there are probably a number of mental images impeding his success.  All of them must be addressed, success substituted, and impediments resolved.

The significant variable in team consistency is obviously coaching.  Coaches affect confidence as much or more in non-verbal ways (e.g, demeanor, unspoken messsages, body posture, honesty, etc.) as they do in laying out game plans and one-on-one talks.  When teams have 'bad' games in pressure situations, or come up cold, we must look to the coach not only for solutions, but the seeds of the problem in the first place.  'Soft' teams are a reflection of their coaches.  It may be too much expect coaches to learn how to change their game plans in real time (although a strategic assistant would be a good addition in these instances), but they can do much to ensure that their players enter each game mentally and attitudinally prepared to play.

Great sports is as much between the ears as it is in being physically prepared.  As Yogi Bera once said, "Baseball is 90% mental.  The other half is physical."  Players and coaches would do well to spend much more time on improving team psychological well being and toughness.

It works.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com