"If only we had beaten Villanova, we could have won six in a row."
How many times has a fan said something like that?
The middle of conference play is the time of the season that can make or break a basketball team. No matter what league you play in, every single game is akin to a street fight.
A coach can't afford to look back and lament a loss during this time of year, because sometimes a tough loss helps a team to refocus. Conversely, a win can easily give a team a false sense of security and cause poor play down the road. It's all part of what I call the "psychology of the schedule." And it's why you must have a strategy for keeping your team focused, game in and game out, over the course of a long season.
For me, it was always about starting a "one-game wining streak." I emphasized to my team that, win or lose, all that mattered was winning that next game. When thing went really well, we might string together seven or eight "one-game winning streaks," but I did not want my team to ever look too far down the road. We never wanted to count our chickens.
When you try to start a one-game winning streak, the record of the next opponent does not matter. We prepared for that next opponent as if it was the most important game on our schedule.
In conference play, it's been proven time and time again this season that good teams can lose to anyone. The gap in talent is often minimized by a home-court advantage, familiarity within the league, overconfidence or just plain bad luck. The only thing a coach can control is preparing for the opponent his team plays next.
Think about undermanned Marquette this season. Six of its nine Big East games this season have been decided by three points or less. And four of the Golden Eagles' losses have come at the hands of teams ranked in the top eight at the time. It would be very easy for a team like that look at its murderers' row of opponents, lose confidence and play the what-if game with the schedule.
Instead of being demoralized, coach Buzz Williams' Golden Eagles have used the close losses to help them redouble their effort and improve their focus, ultimately making them a better team. At the risk of repeating myself each week, a coach's responsibility is to get his team to embrace adversity. Every time the Golden Eagles look as if they are about pack it in, they come out and make the next game a street fight.
On Saturday, Williams' team was ready for the next game on the schedule and started another "one-game winning streak" in a last-second thriller at UConn. On the road in a tough environment, Marquette committed an astounding three turnovers in 40 minutes. While Williams' players deserve most of the credit for the win, the coach's mindset while preparing his team in the face of adversity was equally critical.
An adverse way "psychology of the schedule" can affect coaches is when they complain publicly about their schedule. In any conference in the country, a team will have a killer stretch like Marquette has had so far. Four of five games on the road or five of seven versus ranked opponents is the reality of the college season. Deal with it.
If a coach complains publicly about the unfairness of the schedule, it is a built-in excuse for his team to lose. Whenever a particularly tough stretch of the schedule happened to my team, I might privately complain to the conference office so that it wouldn't happen again in the future (you have to posture a little). But with my players, I would try to convince them that if we could survive a tough part of our schedule, it would turn around for us somewhere else down the road.
Texas closes the Big 12 season with four of its last six and five of its last nine games on the road. It is not easy for the hated Horns to win at places like Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor.
Rather than complain about the schedule, Rick Barnes will want to make sure that his team takes care of business in the next couple of weeks by piling up home wins and building a cushion. And then, one by one, Texas will treat each road trip like an opportunity to start another one-game winning streak and build mental toughness.
Trust me, those road games on his schedule aren't going anywhere. If anything, it will give Barnes an opportunity to create the proper mental approach for the stretch run of the Longhorns' season and prepare his team for postseason play.
Barnes' nonconference schedules are proof that he's not afraid of putting his team in challenging environments. These conference road games will be great preparation for neutral-site games in the NCAA tournament.
Ultimately, a coach's job is to prepare his team to play its best basketball at the end of the season. He tries to keep his team fresh and at its physical peak. But he also prepares his team mentally. That means playing the hand, or schedule, that he's dealt.