Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Caltech Ends Colossal 26-Year Conference Losing Streak

(Image: California Institute of Technology).

The California Institute of Technology is known as one of the world's elite universities: it's an extremely selective science and engineering-oriented institution which, despite having a tiny enrollment -- its undergraduate enrollment is approximately 950 and its graduate enrollment is approximately 1,200 -- has produced 31 Nobel Prize winners. Perhaps not surprisingly, Caltech (as it's commonly known) has a reputation for being the ultimate "geek" school (with apologies to M.I.T. and the University of Chicago). One thing that's certain, though, is that Caltech is definitely not known as a basketball school. The Caltech men's basketball team carried a 26-year, 310 game conference losing streak into Tuesday night's game against Occidental.

But Tuesday, Caltech beat Occidental 46-45. It was the Beavers' first win over a conference rival in the NCAA Division III Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Association since their 48-47 win over the University of La Verne on January 23, 1985.

Congratulations to the Caltech men's basketball team and to Caltech Coach Oliver "Doc" Eslinger. Coach Eslinger is a what might be termed a "friend of the program" here at Drive and Dish. His fine blog, "Doc's Head Games" has been in our blog roll (which remains, somewhat regrettably, at the bottom of the site ... at least for now) for the last several years. Due to Coach Eslinger's highly demanding schedule, he doesn't have much time for blogging. As a result, "Doc's Head Games" often goes weeks (and sometimes months) without being updated. But Coach Eslinger's posts are always interesting and informative, regardless of the date on the last posting. "Doc's Head Games" is an outstanding basketball blog that offers first-rate analysis of any number of things pertinent to the coaching and execution of good basketball. But the blog's real focus is sports psychology. Drive and Dish recommends strongly that readers who have any kind of interest in the mental side of sports -- basketball in particular -- bookmark and subscribe to "Doc's Head Games."

Anyone who's ever endured a slump or losing streak in a sport, regardless of level, probably knows all too well how much of a burden a slump or losing streak can be for individual athletes and for teams. But it's difficult to imagine the psychological strain that carrying a 26-year conference losing streak into each game must have placed on Caltech's players. Ending that colossal losing streak gets the mother of all proverbial "monkeys" off Caltech's back. Coach Eslinger, with his background in sports psychology, may be more well-placed at Caltech than he would be elsewhere. Caltech's players are expected to lose nearly every time they take the court. That's a tremendous mental obstacle for any team to overcome, regardless of how bright its players are off the court. The mental side of athletic competition is a bigger factor in sports than most people realize. As such, there's a great deal of truth to the old cliche that winning begets more winning, and vice-versa. After Tuesday night's game, Coach Eslinger said, “I hope that everyone who has participated in Caltech men’s basketball is able to celebrate a little bit tonight.” Indeed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Last Remaining Undefeated Team Falls: Wisconsin Upends Ohio State's Hopes For Perfect Season

(Reuters photo: Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor [Left] and Jon Leuer [Right] celebrate their win over No. 1 Ohio State).

No. 1 ranked Ohio State was undefeated when they entered the Kohl Center in Madison, WI, for their Saturday afternoon game against No. 13 Wisconsin. But the Buckeyes exited the Kohl Center with their hopes of an undefeated season dashed after they were upset by Wisconsin 71-67. Wisconsin junior point guard Jordan Taylor scored 21 of his 27 points and dished out 4 assists in the final 13 minutes of the game, as he and the Badgers overcome a 15 point Ohio State lead en route to victory.

Ohio State will drop from No. 1 when the new AP Top 25 is released on Monday. Current No. 2 Kansas will, undoubtedly, overtake the No. 1 position. But Ohio State will be just fine. No one really expected them to finish the season with an undefeated record. As Drive and Dish opined when the previously undefeated and No. 1 ranked Duke Blue Devils lost their first game of the season in January, nobody goes undefeated in college basketball today. Bob Knight's 1976 Indiana Hoosiers delivered the last undefeated season in men's college basketball. In the ensuing 35 years, nobody else has finished the season with an unblemished record. And it's extremely unlikely that anybody will do so anytime soon, if ever.

The loss will have no bearing on Ohio State's prospects for earning a trip to the 2011 Final Four and a shot at the 2011 National Championship. They still must be considered legitimate contenders for both honors. However, it bears mention that teams which rely heavily on freshmen rarely win Championships--especially teams that start a freshman at point guard. And despite the leadership of talented upperclassmen David Lighty, William Buford and Jon Diebler, coach Thad Matta's Buckeyes are led freshman superstar center Jared Sullinger and start freshman Aaron Craft at point guard.

Drive and Dish considers the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes to be the most talented, best balanced team in college basketball. But they face an uphill battle in their quest to reach the Final Four, if for no other reason than their heavy reliance on freshmen at the key positions of center and point guard. Jared Sullinger might be the best player in the college game, but he's still a freshman (despite the fact that he doesn't play like one). At some point in the NCAA Tournament, his inexperience--as well as the inexperience of freshman point guard Craft--is likely to catch up with the Buckeyes.

So who do we expect to win the 2011 National Championship? It's still too early to answer that question, or to even identify a short-list of likely teams. It's been one of those rare seasons in college basketball in which no team has distinguished itself as a favorite. Defending National Champion Duke still probably has to be considered the team to beat, despite the fact that the Blue Devils have lost several key players from their 2010 Championship team. But there's lots of room for an upstart to take the college basketball world by storm. Can Ohio State be that team? Possibly, but Buckeye fans shouldn't hold their collective breath waiting for that to happen. No freshman has taken his team to an NCAA men's basketball title since Carmello Anthony directed Syracuse to the 2003 Championship. And Anthony was a noteworthy exception to an otherwise near-ironclad rule: prior to 2003, Louisville's Purvis Ellison had been the last freshman to lead his team to a National Championship (1986). Michael Jordan famously hit the game-winning shot as a freshman for North Carolina in the 1982 National Championship game, but the young Jordan was far from the leader of his team--upperclassmen James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Matt Daugherty led the '82 Tar Heels.

Ohio State is very talented and should be considered extremely dangerous with regard to their potential for making a run deep into the NCAA Tournament. But the odds are still against them cutting down the nets in April.