One thing that bugs me about sports coverage is the stories. Not all stories, mind you. If you’re not interested in 1000 words criticizing the coverage of Murray State’s loss to Tennessee State last Thursday, skip what remains here and spend a few moments reading one of the following stories about Butler. There’s this David Woods’ piece about the Bulldogs’ Crishawn Hopkins, and also Pete Thamel’s look at the day-to-day operations of the program. Both are excellent stories worth your time.
It’s the manufactured stories that attempt to explain the often-unexplainable variability in a team’s performance that I take issue with. Some team salvages its season by going on a late winning-streak and the origins of the streak are explained by a players-only meeting or the team captain stepping up and being a leader, or a renewed emphasis on defense, etc. When in reality, the causes of the change may have been more complicated that anyone could truly understand. (Naturally, this xkcd comic comes to mind.)
Murray State’s loss last week provided one of the clearest such examples of this method of analysis. The general assumption after the loss was that the Racers cracked under the pressure [(1), (2), (3)] of their unbeaten record. Even the coach said so! The thing is, Murray never reached a point during the season where they were better than a 50% proposition to go unbeaten in conference. You play enough games in which you are heavily favored, and you are going to lose eventually. Put more precisely, a team that plays ten games as a 90% favorite is expected to lose once during that span, and the Racers have played a lot of such games this season, including the game against Tennessee State.
The question I have is this: How do you know the difference between Murray losing because it had a bad day (or its opponent had a good day) and Murray cracking under some sort of pressure? It seems impossible to me. Regardless of whether the Racers were negatively impacted by the pressure, they were still expected to lose at some point, through some natural intersection of playing a game worse than normal and their opponent playing abnormally well.
I suppose we could make a list of the things that would manifest themselves in a team that was burdened by pressure. Perhaps there would be more missed or rushed shots than usual, poorer decision-making, poorer defense, and a lot of turnovers. How would a bad game, uninfluenced by the pressure of an undefeated run, look? It seems like the same factors are in play. I guess you could throw in bad breaks or questionable calls, too. (Which arguably happened.) In one case the team is playing worse than usual because the pressure is getting to them and in the other case the team is playing worse than usual because of some other factors, yet the indicators are identical. I think you are fooling yourself if you think you can distinguish between the two.
There’s lots of unexplained variance in a college basketball game. The Vegas line has long been proven to be the best predictor of outcomes, and while it has the reputation among some of being scarily accurate, the average error in the Vegas line is 8.4 points. And, with all due respect to other prognosticators out there, that’s the best we can do.
Keep in mind that 8.4 points of unpredictable variability is the combination of the variability of the two teams involved in a game. When Duke unexpectedly won at North Carolina last week, was it because Duke played better than usual and UNC played worse than usual, or was it because UNC played better than usual and Duke played much, much better than normal? Or was it because both teams played worse than usual, but UNC just really played badly? I think it’s nearly impossible to disentangle the two. If one team shoots poorer than expected, is it because their form was off or because the defense was better than usual? It is difficult to determine the answers to questions like this without some serious video breakdown.
Duke beating UNC by a point actually wasn’t too unlikely of an event, but where results deviate more significantly from expectation as the Murray/TSU game did, it’s more reasonable to assume that it’s due to a combination of the underdog playing better than normal and the favorite playing worse than normal. We could speculate on what caused the Racers to play poorly. Certainly pressure is on the table of possible causes, but given that they were expected to lose a game in the absence of this unique factor, it’s hardly obvious that it was the main contributor to the outcome.
One might say that Murray committed 18 turnovers, and that’s a sure sign of cracking under the pressure. Perhaps, but Murray also made 10 of its 23 three-point attempts – not exactly a giveaway of sweaty palms. I expect if the Racers had committed 3 turnovers but gone 2 for 23 the same conclusion would have been reached. In fact, I don’t think there was any way the Racers could have lost an OVC game without pressure being attributed as the main reason, despite the fact that teams routinely get upset due to reasons other than pressure.
This leads into another pet peeve associated with coverage of this game: the difference in the coverage of power conference schools and everyone else. Murray State has strengths and weaknesses and one of their biggest weaknesses is committing turnovers. The biggest disservice in attributing the loss solely to a psychological burden is that it ignores a serious flaw the Racers have.
If we were talking about Syracuse’s first loss in mid-February, undoubtedly there would be a deeper examination of what we could take from that loss from a basketball standpoint. With Murray State, we got a lot of feel-good talk about how the Racers are still capable of a March run. Maybe they are, but if they do win multiple games in the tournament, it will be because they overcame their persistent problem of not taking care of the basketball, which was a culprit in their downfall last week.
Maybe the strongest argument that pressure was the cause of Murray State’s first loss was the Andy Katz piece linked above in which head coach Steve Prohm admits as much. However, it’s always a leap of faith to take a coach at his word when talking on the record for a piece that will get national visibility. If you were running a team, would you rather have your players believe that it lost a game on account of its ability or that there was some external factor involved? I think the latter, especially considering the factor in question is now removed. Assuming pressure actually impacted the outcome, it’s gone now, and therefore the team will believe that it can play better. Thus, I will take Prohm’s quotes with a grain of salt. Believe everything a coach says, and you end up in a place believing Levon Kendall was headed to the NBA or that Tony Bennett prefers an uptempo style. Coaches have a strong incentive to tell journalists what they want their team (or future opponents) to hear.
Certainly pressure could have been a factor in Murray State’s first loss, but given that a loss was expected at some point this season, it’s nearly impossible to say how much of an impact it made, if any. What’s more certain is that like any team trying to get an at-large bid, Murray State has flaws, and those flaws were evident in their loss against Tennessee State.