An Easy Trap

It’s an easy trap to fall into, especially with sporting events that you watch closely. There are always little moments where one thinks, wow, that could have gone either way, or wow, what if this or that happened.

And I’m hearing that quite a bit from last night’s game. I’m especially hearing that Memphis lost that game and KU did not win it.

It’s a fascinating concept. In this case, Memphis missed 5 out of 6 free throws in the final two minutes. People are saying that Memphis choked.

People, however, are forgetting the previous 6 or 7 minutes where KU didn’t score. People are forgetting that in that stretch KU “lost” the game. Had Memphis won, talking heads would have pointed at that stretch and criticized KU’s kids and coaches for choking because they were up 5 with less than 10 minutes to play.

Basketball is a sport of runs. The thing about runs is that when two similarly talented teams play, each run takes a great deal of energy out of a team. Hence, once a run is over it is often followed by a run by the other team.

Memphis had a long, very effective run that included quite a few iffy moments that KU fans could point to. Fouls that might have been called, bad luck, etc. But nevertheless, Memphis was putting it to the Jayhawks, and expending a huge amount of energy to do it.

The game recap, however, shows the story. It’s here:

Scroll down and look at the game flow. The two teams were and are evenly matched. Each team held the lead for significant stretches. In fact, I think KU was in front for most of the game. With a little over 9 minutes to go, Memphis when on a run, and you see the first big gap of the game, but prior to that KU had opened up 2 stretches, and Memphis started the game hot.

Fatigue takes away a player’s legs. It takes away the ability to be quite so smooth, even in top flight athletes. There was no doubt at the end of the first half both teams were pretty worn out.

I can’t say whether it was a mental failure that caused the missing of 5 out of 6 free throws or not, but I can say that the energy that the Tigers spent getting to the 9 point lead had to be a factor.

Kansas, which had a deeper team, was able to withstand fatigue better than the Tigers. I would say that talent-wise the teams were about the same, but KU spread its talent on 8 great and very good players while Memphis had 2 amazing players, 1 great player, and 4 good players. KU had 2 minutes of extra energy and even though the ball did not always bounce their way (the angle of the carom on the offensive rebound with 16 seconds left for example), they had fresher legs to overcome the challenge.

I can also say that many teams might very well have conceded defeat. Down 9 with 2 minutes to go is the definition of a desperate situation, especially since at that point they were 1 of 9 from 3 point range, well under their season average of around 40%. The Jayhawks simply continued to play hard.

In the end, Memphis shot almost exactly their season average from the free throw line for the game. It is unfortunate that the misses bunched up at the end, but that simply balances the fact that they shot way over their percentage earlier. Had the misses been sprinkled through the game, and not at the end, Memphis would have had a smaller lead and they would not be criticized for choking.

A tired team is not as effective and KU made them tired. They ended up shooting their average at the free throw line, reflecting how much energy they had shown earlier.

The criticism here, I think, is unjustified. Was KU lucky? Absolutely. Was Memphis lucky? Absolutely as well. It simply depends on which moment you look at.

The two teams battled it out. They were evenly matched. To say that all of the causality of the final result was limited to the failure of Memphis disregards the evenness of the game. The sequence is unfortunate, but KU deserves the credit for winning that game and Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts do not deserve credit for losing it.

Sports commentators often have a need to analyze causality, partly to justify their job. A player gets a hit, and the commentator says that pitcher can’t get him out because that player now 3 out of his 4 at bats against that pitcher. A quarterback is called clutch or unclutch because of 1 play. In this case, two players missed 5 out of 6 free throws. 6 is hardly a proper sample size. The results of one game are not a sample size. In batting statistics, 100 is not a proper sample size. Talk to me when there’s a body of work. Sports commentators rarely take the long view, but statistics are not valid in the short term, you HAVE to take the long view when you look at them (though stating that KU knew what overtime games in the NCAA final were like because the KU-North Carolina final game went 3 overtimes IN 1954! is maybe a little excessive).

OK, maybe I get ranty after 3 hours of adrenalin-filled sleep and bigtime stress at homework levels. 🙂

5 thoughts on “An Easy Trap”

  1. My dad says hasn’t gotten good press in 20 years. He’s says especially recently, sports commentators don’t know what to make of them – because they’re chameleons. There’s not a “KU game” per se. Instead they’ll play speed against North Carolina and postion against Memphis. They *match* their opponents game. The way to beat them would be to play a strategy that KU can’t have watched in the tapes. But the end result is because the commentators can’t identify a KU “game” it just ends up looking like the other team played *their* game poorly.

    I hope I’m writing that so it makes sense. This was a half hour phone conversation – LOL!

  2. Dude….

    I’m an Ohio State fan. Gotten rather used to explanations in the past year or so that Ohio State choked and this is why Florida beat them.

    In the case of the national championship they won in 2002 (football), it was because Florida State choked.

    I’ve notice any time a favourite loses, this seems to be the explanation. Couldn’t possibly be that the other team was any good, now, could it….

    1. Re: Dude….

      Yeah, couldn’t be that.

      Especially if we’re talking about Ohio State 😉

      Florida has had some fantastic teams in both sports in retrospect, given what we’ve already seen from some pro prospects. Ohio State ran into some buzzsaws.

  3. Missing free throws is losing a game. The other side can do nothing to stop you. During Memphis’ run, KU had the ability to stop them. The KU offense did what it had to do. The Memphis defense could not stop them. But there was no KU defense to help win. It was all in the heads of the Memphis players. They buckled.

    With that said, I think the teams were evenly matched as well. And KU still had to win the game. Overtime showed that Memphis was down and tired, but they could have won it in regulation when KU could do nothing to stop them.

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