I was chatting with Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale about various topics Thursday, and she said something off-handedly at the end of the conversation that stuck with me all day.
And that was how by this point in the season, teams and players start to “believe” they are the numbers that are associated with them _ for good and for bad. Meaning, if you are 7-1 in league play, or you’ve made nine of your last 20 3-pointers, or you went 5 for 5 from the free-throw line in the last 2 minutes of a game, that becomes your identity.
But if you are 1-7 in league play, or you’ve only made two of your last 20 3-point shots, or you turned over the ball four times in the last 2 minutes of a game, then that becomes your identity.
All of us who are observers of a sport will find ourselves asking why a certain player isn’t doing better. We think, “But she’s really talented! Remember how good a shooter she was at one point? What’s wrong with her now?”
After Nebraska’s 67-60 victory at Kansas on Wednesday, I was having that conversation with a couple of other reporters about certain players for Kansas. The Jayhawks, having lost two starters to ACL injuries this season, need other people to do a lot more.
Especially with top scorer Danielle McCray now gone, it’s like the lead character in a play took ill and had to exit the stage, leaving everyone else up there to ad-lib the rest of the way. Will they bomb? Or will somebody - or more than one somebody – realize that they now can become the lead character(s)?
It’s easy to look from the outside in any such situation and say, “Well, why doesn’t she step forward? She’s good.” But it sometimes it’s very hard for that player to truly envision herself in a different role. Oh, sure, she may say she knows she needs to do it. She may even make some strides towards it.
But ultimately, she really has to believe it. And Coale said the deeper it gets into the season, the harder it usually is to change how a player or a whole team views identity.
It happens, though. Sometimes the identity “upgrade” lasts for just a game, but other times it really does stay for the remainder of a season.
Kansas won its first game back after losing McCray, Sunday against Kansas State. But then, the Jayhawks – with a chance Wednesday to upset Nebraska – saw the game slip away from them in the final minutes thanks in large part to the turnovers the Huskers forced.
So what identity will the Jayhawks take now? With Texas coming to Lawrence on Saturday and the Jayhawks very badly needing to find at least four victories to be in NCAA tournament consideration, KU must have the identity it did against the Wildcats. Which is, “Hey, we can still do this.”
What about Texas Tech? Going into Wednesday’s game with Texas A&M, leading scorer Kierra Mallard was suspended and the Raiders had lost six in a row. They were coming off a 30-point loss at Texas, which would be bad for any team but is just about unbearable for Tech and the Raider Nation. (They consider all things Longhorn as representing, to put it one way, insufferable egomania.)
Yet, with all this baggage weighing them down, with all these reasons to have “Jeez, we stink!” as an identity, the Raiders managed to upset the Aggies. But will that really change Tech’s identity for any sustainable period?
What about North Carolina’s free-fall right now? With Thursday night’s loss to Boston College – coached by former Tar Heel Sylvia Crawley _ UNC has now lost four games in a row and is zero-for-February. The skid started Feb. 1 when the Heels looked like they expected Florida State to play dead against them after the Seminoles had been waxed at Duke three nights before.
Instead, FSU played well, but also scrapped well. When the sense of urgency finally kicked in for the Tar Heels that night in Chapel Hill, the Seminoles responded. And now FSU has won three in a row, while UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell is talking about feeling like the Tar Heels are in a bad dream.
Next up for Carolina is a trip to Virginia on Monday, and it’s really going to take an attitude adjustment for the Heels to avoid a fifth straight loss. Meanwhile, the Cavs are tantalizingly (agonizingly?) close to having won nine games in a row.
They fell 61-60 at home on Jan. 11, one of those kick-yourself losses if you are U.Va. Then the Cavs just couldn’t seem to get it in gear Jan. 31 in a 64-57 defeat at Wake Forest. But they’ve won their other seven games in that monthlong stretch, including a key victory Thursday at Miami.
Then you look at Purdue, which is now 13-12 and has two distinct identities. The Boilermakers are a good team when they’re at Mackey Arena. But they are not very good anywhere else. Many teams are like that to a degree, but not to Purdue’s extreme this year. In league play, Purdue is 7-0 at home, 1-6 on the road.
And those drastically different identities for the same team have to drive a coach pretty crazy. Purdue beat Ohio State 63-61 on Jan. 25 in West Lafayette, Ind. So you wonder if coach Sharon Versyp doesn’t look at her players on a night like Thursday (a 75-45 loss at Ohio State) and ask herself, “Who ARE these people?”