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When Bad Things Happen To Good Teams: Luck's Impact On Cardinal Basketball

So there seem to be a couple different coalescing fan opinions about yesterday's game.  First, the refs screwed us (again!) and this is getting ri-gd-diculous.  Second, our team blew another game that it should have won, giving up a double digit lead and failing to make plays down the stretch.  Everyone can agree that Pitino bears some blame - either for not punching a ref or for his substitution patterns, his late-game timeouts to let the other team draw up a play, or all of the above.  What makes it worse is that this is the fourth game we have lost so far in the Big East in this way, except at least we didn't blow a lead to Seton Hall. 

And yesterday's loss certainly had a mix of all of those things.  Sure, we shouldn't have blown a lead.  But keep in mind we were playing a top ten team on the road, a team that has consistently made up big deficits this year, and that they made a huge defensive switch to a weird 1-3-1/2-3 zone with a couple of 6-6 guys at the top.  If they had played that defense the whole game, who knows what we've done.  The point of that is, it's not like we were throwing the ball to the other team every time down the court, or just started taking bad shots.  The other team - a really good team - made a really good defensive adjustment that we couldn't re-adjust for.  Pitino can gameplan, he can make halftime adjustments, but his strong suit has never been in-game adjustments. 

The other thing everyone agrees on is that we are clearly heading to the NIT.  I'm not so sure.  Looking at the schedule, we can go 5-1 over the next 6 (UConn and @Syracuse are two toughest games) which means we'd have to go 2-2 over the last 4 to get to 11 wins (Georgetown, @Uconn, @Marquette, Cuse - yikes).  I don't think I'm crazy to say that 11 wins is impossible, nor am I to say that 11 wins is actually pretty doable.

But losing becomes contagious.  Not being able to finish games creeps into your head, so when we were only up 5, I felt like we were going to lose.  You know if the fans felt like that, the guys on the court who had actually experienced those losses way worse than we ever could felt the same thing.  So thinking you can't finish contributes to not being able to finish.   

Let's face it - WVU did every little thing it had to do to win yesterday. Any one thing goes differently in those last 5 minutes, we win that game.  WVU got 2 and-1's on questionable calls.  We kept missing shots, missed a few free throws, fouled a bunch....and Butler made a really tough shot to give them their first lead of the half.  And even after all of that, we had arguably best three point shooter from his favorite spot get hammered (no foul called) and then should have had another chance with 7 seconds left.  But luck plays a huge part, and the refs blew both calls.  Also, the ball went out on Mizzula's face.

Anyway, the point of this post is to ask whether this loss or any of these four losses really say something about this team, or just about basketball in general. If any one thing had gone different in yesterday's game or the Pitt game, we'd be in the top 25 and arguing seeding.  If Scottie Reynolds hadn't gone an unreal 9-10, 5-5 (13-17) while getting every single call (Siva's fifth foul, for example), maybe we're in the top 10 right now.  Instead, Nova is undefeated in the Big East and is going to be ranked #2 Monday. 

The Pitt game - every little thing had to go wrong for us to lose that game, and right for Pitt.  Us missing so many free throws is just part of it - Pitt had to make a three pointer and then score with 1.9 remaining on an inbounds play - that they did by getting fouled by our Senior Co-Captain while their player was dribbling out of control away from the basket.  I mean, come on.  So those are three losses to ranked teams that just as easily could have been wins with just ONE thing going right for us, wrong for the other team, or somewhere in between. 

But maybe this stuff is just balancing out.  Let's look at some close calls from last year's magical run, not including the Kentucky game (what if Sosa misses that shot? I don't even want to think about it.  Except maybe they bring back Billy G for Year 3). 

It all boils down to this:  Alex Ruoff has never missed every shot he's taken in a game, and Scottie Reynolds has never had a game where he shot 90%/100%/76% and scored 36 points.  If Ruoff had made 1 open shot, or Reynolds missed 1 contested fall away 3, how different would everything be?  Can we really control that?

At 'Nova (1/10/09):  The Cards shoot 3-25 from three but lead by 6-8 points most of the game, including a 9 point lead under 9 minutes.  Nova comes back to take the lead (sound familiar?)  Down the stretch, we kept missing but Nova kept missing free throws to give us a chance.  T-Will makes the running layup that bounces around the rim a couple times before going in to give us a lead with :12.  How many times does that play work? In those last :12, Nova gets a 2-1 break that Swopshire prevents a basket by fouling, then Nova misses two free throws and two layups as time expires.  Nova then goes on to the Final Four. 

Notre Dame (1/12/09):  Two days later, UofL hosts reigning player of the year Luke Harongody and the #13 ranked Irish.  A back and forth game where Notre Dame comes from down 7 to take a 4 point lead.  Freshman Samardo Samuels makes a big leap forward and helps us tie the score at 77-77 all with about 3 minutes to go.  Neither team scores the last three minutes, but we go on a 16-2 run in overtime to win the game going away.  Easily a game we could have lost, if ND had just hit 1 shot or free throw those last 3 minutes (and no one on our offense was exactly clutch those last three minutes either).

#1 Pitt (1/17/09):  A few days later, undefeated and #1 ranked Pitt comes to town.  They jump out to a 20-9 lead and it looks like we are going to have a rough day.  We battle back to take the lead in the first half but get down by as many as 7 points again in the second half.  We battle back again to take the lead, stifling Pitt's offense.  We get a miraculous call (Fields's push-off charge on Sosa 90 feet away from their rim) and then this happens:



If Earl Clark has the ball with less than 3 seconds on the shot clock, doesn't realize it, somehow figures it out and takes a 3 pointer with a foot on the line while fading to his right ten times in his career, how many times does that shot go in?  Twice?  Who makes that shot this year on our team?  But can't you totally see Stanley Robinson doing that to us Monday night? What must Pitt fans have thought?  Ugh.

Anyway, the teams trade free throws over the last minute and we pull out a 6-point win.

@West Virginia (3/7/09):  With the regular season Big East championship on the line (because Pitt had knocked off UConn earlier in the day), we rolled into Morgantown, on Senior Night, where the ESPN Gameday crew had hosted that morning and was calling the game that night at 9.  That's a lot of stuff stacked against us.  As mentioned above, Senior Alex Ruoff is held scoreless on 0-the night shooting.  Jerry Smith, yes, that Jerry Smith, made a huge 2 pointer from the wing and then made two clutch free throws.  From the exact same spot, mind you, he missed @GTown in 2008 when we lost the regular season championship on the last day of the season.  T-Will missed two free throws to give them a chance, but their three that they had to make misses at the buzzer.  Celebration and mass hysteria ensue.

Those were not lucky wins by any stretch of the imagination.  T-Will, Earl and Andre McGee all played huge roles in each of those games and seemingly willed us to victory.  But we got a lot of lucky bounces, some lucky calls, made some huge shots, the other teams missed their shots they needed to make, and we had an amazing run. 

There is still a lot of season left to play, but all we need to do is pull out one of these close games so that the "here we go again" mentality that has surely affected us in our close losses this year turns into a "we will win this game" mentality.  Some players just aren't going to change their ways so far into their careers.  And some players just aren't as good as T-Will, Earl, Padgett, etc. 

If we could just get that one lucky bounce, that one call that goes in our favor, that one shot the other team needs that bounces's not like we are losing to crappy CUSA teams, we've shown we can play with the top teams in the country.  Ya, we shouldn't have blown a big lead yesterday, but that top-10 team had something to do with it.  We just needed - but didn't get - a little bit of help.  Maybe things are just evening up from all that magic last season.