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Tourney Upsets and Motivation

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/21/2012


While watching all the tournament games this week, does anything stand out? How about all the upsets? As usual, upsets and surprises dominated the highlights. Duke? Out. Missouri? Done! Michigan? Ousted by (gulp) No. 13 seed Ohio of the MAC.
But isn’t it always like this? Last year George Mason did it again, a team that went to the Final Four in 2006; and VCU not only beat Georgetown but blasted them, 74-56, while Louisville went down on opening night.
Upsets happen a lot in March and will continue. Sometimes it’s matchups, but other times it is interest and motivation. Last year at this time that’s what happened with the demise of Tennessee, pulling a no-show against Michigan knowing that their coach is likely gone.
The No. 8-seeded Wolverines built on a 33-29 halftime lead by opening the second half on a 19-2 run to put the game away. The Vols failed to close back within single figures thereafter due in large part to 18 turnovers and numerous missed shots and defensive breakdowns. "We unraveled,” Bruce Pearl said.
Michigan became the first team in NCAA tournament history to win a game without making a free throw; the Wolverines missed their only free-throw attempt. The margin of defeat was the largest in Pearl's six seasons with the Vols, so they clearly had packed it in. Lehigh had motivation the other way while upsetting Duke – the small school taking on Goliath, as did Ohio knocking off Michigan.
Motivation is huge this time of the year, not just for the Big Dance but all these other tournaments going on. Who wants to be here? Who really cares about playing? Some teams look at invitations to the NIT or CBI as a reward for an overachieving season, while others look at it as a snub as they had their hopes set on the Big Dance.
Missouri was a great example a few years ago of a team in turmoil just packing it in, and it wasn't a surprise to see them exit the Big 12 tourney fast, failing to cover in their only game. That put the Tigers 2-11 SU, 2-10-1 ATS the last 13 games! Like Tennessee might have now, they had a coach leaving the program and gave up on the season weeks ago.
Motivation is important to bring up. Some teams underachieved during the regular season, but now have a second chance in this third season to make amends. Pay just as much attention to this next week, too, because you can identify teams that are delighted to make the NCAA tourney and others that are disappointed to have to settle for an NIT bid. The NIT offers excellent examples of teams that really don't want to be there.
It's more important to look at how a team is performing over the last few weeks, rather than the whole season. This gives a much clearer picture of where the team is. Indiana was a good example a few years ago. The Hoosiers weren't a bad team, they ended the regular season 17-10. They just stumbled in January and early February, losing 7 of 8, before regrouping. What made their situation appear even worse was the controversy surrounding then-head coach Mike Davis. The appearance was of a team in total chaos and collapse, but they then regrouped and won 5 in a row, even upsetting Michigan State late in the regular season.
Coaching is another factor to look at. Old timers like John Wooden, Dean Smith and Red Auerbach were masterful at finding ways, day in and day out, to keep teams focused and motivated. Roy Williams, Mark Few and Coach K are current day master motivators. Their teams can be beat, but they are rarely outhustled.
When examining whether you think a team might be packing in the season or disappointed in an NIT bid, check the head coach of that team. Look at other places that coach has been. Did his teams win? Did they pull upsets regularly? Did they play defense? Did they excel in tournament play, or fall flat too often? Coaching, motivation and interest make major differences in how a team plays on the court and ultimately against the number.

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