Monday, March 23, 2015

culture shock

This is the post I should've written before Sunday, so you'd know what was coming.  I only managed to nod suggestively in its direction.  Now it's just about making sense of what happened.

Because to make sense of what happened, you have to get Michigan State.  Darion Atkins doesn't, or else he wouldn't have talked sideways about his teammates not wanting it enough.  No, I don't actually blame Atkins one bit.  He's frustrated, he just walked off a college basketball court for the last time, and to the uninitiated, what just happened really did look an awful lot like one team wanting it a lot more than the other.  But I'd venture to say nobody in the UVA locker room really gets Michigan State, nor do 99% of UVA fans.  After this, you'll know the true story of UVA's 2015 tournament exit.

See, MSU is built on a certain culture that Tom Izzo has cultivated.  It's a culture of birthright, of entitlement.  It makes them arrogant.  There's a hint of punk in their game.  Not Joey Ramone punk.  Think Greivis Vasquez punk.  The Spartans are cocky to an extreme, and it works extremely well for them.  They've been brought up to believe two things: one, that it's their right to beat Michigan, and two, that it's their right to excel in March.

This doesn't make them complacent.  On the contrary, it makes them hungry.  I often say that getting college kids to believe they've been disrespected is the easiest thing in the world.  They view the very existence of an opponent as disrespect.  That you would think you have any claim to winning a game against their birthright is disrespect on the order of making a rival claim to the throne.

As a result, they're really sore losers.  Some say that's a good thing; Vince Lombardi was the sorest loser in history.  "Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser," he said.  Several years ago, Michigan made the U-M/MSU game a rivalry again by reeling off three straight wins; when MSU got one back, Draymond Green boasted that "The world is back into place."  He wasn't kidding.  Green had been recruited to MSU under the premise that beating Michigan is something you do as naturally as breathing.**   Three straight losses threw off his world order.  Izzo and his players have developed a pattern of saying in post-loss press conferences, "I'm not here to make excuses," and then rattling off a dozen excuses to rationalize why the world didn't turn out the way they expect.

-- After losing to Duke in the 2013 NCAA tournament, Gary Harris complained about a free throw disparity; MSU had shot 24 free throws to Duke's 16 before the first stop-the-clock foul.

-- After losing to Michigan last year, Izzo bemoaned Keith Appling's sore wrist as a reason for his poor shooting night.  Appling's sore wrist had put together two straight 20-point games just a couple weeks before and would follow up the Michigan loss with a 3-for-6 performance from three against Iowa.

-- The same loss to Michigan, in the very same press conference, saw Izzo simultaneously complain that he couldn't get Appling enough rest, and that Appling was in foul trouble too early and had to sit.

MSU takes this attitude into the postseason.  This is why I called them a zombie team.  It played out exactly like that on Sunday.  Every time the momentum looked like it might shift, something happened, and it didn't.  Darion Atkins gets a huge block and starts a mini 5-0 run; MSU gets re-energized by a wide-open dunk and then immediately gets the benefit of a TV timeout to let their momentum simmer.  UVA gets within two just after the half, misses the shot that would put them in the lead, and Denzel Valentine hits a three on the other end, sparking another run.  UVA gets a brilliant double team and a potential turnover, only to have the refs give them a loose-ball timeout and follow it up with an all-ball foul on Darion Atkins, sending our one effective post guy back to the bench.  Zombies.  You shoot and shoot and shoot and they don't die.  All that stuff conspired to remind MSU that March is their birthright, and they kept on playing like it.

Dollars to donuts, the pregame speech in the MSU locker room had a theme like this: "Hey.  This is March.  This is what we play for, and this is our time.  Those guys over there - they're January warriors.  They're great in the regular season.  Now they think they're gonna stroll in here and take what's ours?  They don't know March.  They can't handle March.  We know March."  They don't view you as an obstacle; that would be giving you respect.  You're in the Michigan State Show.  You think you're ready to make your run and beat them, they simply make a play, slap the floor, strut a bit, and that's that.

Michigan finally beat them and made it a rivalry again by finally being sick of their shit.  In 2011, Michigan finally swept the Spartans for the first time long enough that everyone had to look it up; the second game - at Michigan - got a little woofy, and Michigan's Darius Morris told MSU's Kalin Lucas to "Get the fuck off my court."  This is not a paraphrase or a metaphor.  The only response Lucas could muster was to throw the ball at Morris.

That's one way to beat them, but it took years of abuse.  UVA had one loss to them, not ten years worth of losses.  The other way to beat them?  Develop a winning culture of your own.  Our two years of being near the top of the world is nice, but it's not enough.  Here are the teams that've knocked MSU out of the tournament in the last ten years:

Connecticut, Duke, Louisville, UCLA, Butler, North Carolina, Memphis, North Carolina, George Mason, North Carolina.

That list is all blue-blood teams, with three exceptions: the first of two Butler teams to reach the championship; Derrick Rose; and a George Mason team that didn't know any better and wound up in the Final Four.  In fact, seven of those ten teams went to the Final Four; four went to the national championship, and two won it all.  These are teams that laugh when you slap the floor, because they've earned the right to do so.  Any other reaction and you're doomed.

That's what UVA was up against.  Probably a Final Four team now.  Oklahoma, bless their heart, is screwed.  MSU will look at them like a less-talented version of UVA and walk all over them.  The only team left in this region with a chance is Louisville.

To be fair to our players, there's a lot of breaks that, had they bounced the right way, we'd be scouting Oklahoma right now.  Hitting two end-of-shot-clock three pointers while your opponent goes 1-for-13 is part been-there-before and part luck.  But I can look at that game and find ways to win without a single one of those missed threes going down.  And so damn much of it can be chalked up to a culture that we just don't have yet.

**He'd also been recruited to MSU with the promise of playing in a Final Four.  Izzo literally had every single one of his recruiting classes go to the Final Four at least once, a streak that was finally broken last year.  Guaranteed, though, the substance of the pitch is the same even if the exact words no longer are.


BostonHoo said...

Brendan, I agree with you to a point. UVa has not learned how to win in March. Our team was great in December, January, and February. Then March happened, and our guys could not answer the bell. Why did our team show up so unfocused in the first half of so many games? Is there something wrong with how they are prepared? Or how they prepare themselves? Don't fall behind by 11 points before you are even sweating and you might have a chance. How come we have a 7 foot Pillsbury Doughboy playing center who regularly gets out muscled by smaller guys? No, I think Atkins had it right. I don't think the Hoos with their gaudy 30 win season were ready to play in crunch time. There needs to be a lot of soul searching by the staff and players this off season.
Sure, I congratulate the Cavs on their great season, but I also feel deeply saddened and, yes, a little angry because they could have done so much more.

Ruffian1 said...

Totally agree with you, Bostonhoo. When the brackets came out and I saw that MSU matchup I did not think, great, wel'll beat them this year. Instead I thought, crap, we're screwed. Then when I saw 3 ACC teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen on Saturday, I was immediately worried that we'd be the only ACC team to lose. I was still surprised at how lifeless most of the players were, no energy, no confidence, no swagger. Hopefully, there is a learning curve and they will, eventually, succeed in March. CTB has been out coached twice by Izzo, I hope that, too, will change.

Sandmeistr said...

If Izzo outcoached Bennett because Trice hit two 25 footers and a step through 3 with no time on the shot clock, then yes, he outcoached Bennett and Izzo is awesome. Otherwise, poop on that narrative.

We lost four games this year in which something extraordinary had to happen. Duke - smoked the last five minutes of a game in which they'd shown no hint in the first 35 that they could. Ville - an 0 for February guy hits a contested 12 footer. UNC - a frosh shooting 26% from deep hits four of five. MSU - Trice as described above. Sadly, this last one happened in the big one.

BostonHoo said...

Consider that of the five ACC teams that made the Sweet 16, Virginia beat four of them and only ND and Dook may have better personnel. To me that says CTB has not learned how to coach in March.

BostonHoo said...

And, where are our guys who suddenly start draining rainbows to snatch up wins? We seem to create heroes on the other team at a fairly regular pace. No I do not think CTB has it all figured out yet. Until Black Saturday I thought it was all about defense. Now I realize a little offense is required from time to time. I hope CTB comes to the same realization in the off season.

Anonymous said...

A loss in the tournament brings about all the negative emotions out there. Here's my take:

a) The simple thing with UVA all year long has been this - the defense should be decent-solid enough to win most night (hey, they weren't great in the game, but it was fine), but would they have enough scoring options to step up.

In the first half of the season, with Brogdon performing well and Anderson draining threes, you only needed solid play from the other guys, and when a guy like Gill or Atkins stepped up, then UVA was great.

After Anderson went out, UVA's offense struggled to find a consistent option. The sad thing is, the potential is there. Perrantes flashes the three point shooting ability and the ability to run the pick-and-roll, but partially because of Brogdon needing the ball, he just isn't consistent enough. Tobey showed a few glimpses of solid offensive potential before disappearing too much. Shayok needs to find the balance within the system and his aggressiveness - sort of like Anderson in his first two year. Nolte was too inconsistent.

In the game, everything wasn't clicking, and they couldn't generate offense. With Brogdon contained/limited, they didn't have a way to get anything going. Next year is the big year, and for things to go well, I think CTB needs to find a way to be more creative on offense, and I think, my hunch is, that entails giving Perrantes a bit more freedom and urge him to be a bit more aggressive.

b). For all the talk about next year as the big year ... the loss of Atkins shouldn't be under-estimated. Atkins and Mitchell gave us the athletic big that could aggressively double and react in time. The development of Wilkins is going to be huge, as he's the most likely guy to fill that role unless Killeya-Jones (or Diakite) step up. I don't know what to hope from Tobey - there are moments where it's clear he has the offensive ability to be a force, but he's so inconsistent offensively and defensively, it's hard to know what to expect.

c) One other option to play with on offense - post our guards more. We've got big, strong guards, and they rarely were utilized enough in the post. I'd like to see some reverse movement that creates post-up opportunities for them.

d) Still, much as I have never been huge on CTB's offenses, at the end of the day, you gotta make shots, and you gotta hit free throws. We had some shots, and it took a colossally bad game from almost everyone for us to lose that badly.

e) Anderson staying would be a big boost for next year, and I think he should stay. He's probably a fringe first rounder right now, and another year could really boost him up. Reminds me of a Kawhi Leonard/Jimmy BUtler type. That said, I can understand if he goes if he gets a first round guarantee. Coming off an injury and with his stock relatively high compared to the previous two years ... I could understand it. If he came back, that pushes Nolte/Shayok/Hall/Stith further back, enough to make me wonder if a transfer or two may happen. A transfer could happen even if he leaves, as the wing depth will limit PT for guys.

(if all of them stay, I hope they can find a way to redshirt BJ Stith. If Anderson leaves, I hope Shayok can improve enough to jump Nolte for the starting gig.

Sandmeistr said...

"Learning to coach in March" is as ridiculous as "Virginia plays boring basketball" - it's parroting and it's lazy.

As far as this season goes, don't underestimate the difficulty in reestablishing JA in the lineup. As we saw during the games he was injured, it takes a few games to adjust to a suddenly changed rotation.

We seem to create "heroes" on other teams because it takes that kind of effort to beat us. And those "heroes" were created in FOUR of 34 games.

Anonymous said...

There's not much difference between a great team and a good team. A 7 game series is statistically notorious as not being indicative of anything; you'd need around 35 games in a head-to-head series to get a 95% guarantee that the slightly better team would win.

Point being, it's not March's fault, there's a huge amount of randomness involved. Kentucky played two overtime games in a row this year, their undefeated season is a sneeze away from having 2 losses. MSU misses a shot by a couple inches and Wisconsin is a 1 seed instead of us. We lose Anderson and go from a top five offensive eficieny to low-20s and we stall out at the end of the year. A loss in 1-game matchup with MSU doesn't prove anything. Just that it sucks to lose.

So, thin margins. Does this mean there aren't great coaches? Of course there are, but their impact is probably overrated, as they get lucky and unlucky streaks attributed to their talents. What is certifiable is that Virginia is in a position to win. We won 30 games this year, all enjoyable, and could have won both the ACC and NCAA tournaments. We didn't. But I'll take the opportunity and enjoy the fun I have rooting. That's all anyone can realistically ask for, no matter how demanding a fanbase gets.


BostonHoo said...

So Izzo moves on to join three of the best coaches in the country in the final four. And some think it does not take a special talent to succeed in March? I wonder if a guy like Izzo builds his season toward a March peak whereas CTB plays the whole season hard. And, does the pack line style of play just wear out the team by the time March rolls around?

Ruffian1 said...

I've wondered the same thing, whether the effort required for the pack line slowly wears us down. May be the loss of Anderson was the real problem.
I agree that it is crazy to be disappointed in a 30 win season and I'm not. I just think that the team peaked early and that I would happily trade 2 or 3 more losses in the regular season for 2 or 3 more wins in the NCAA tourney.