To lose or not to lose; that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of losing to hated Kentucky at home on Senior Night,
Or to take arms against a sea of historical odds,
And by opposing, end them? To die, to sleep …
Or something like that.
What started as some quizzical murmurs a few weeks ago has grown into some very loud murmurs. Murmurs in which you can actually hear the word “murmur” clearly being shouted again and again from the crowd: The Gators have been winning for so long now…do they need to lose before the NCAA tournament, for their own good?
Multiple arguments have been put forth, such as the need to refocus; the need to protect the players from the complacency of overdosing on their own press clippings; the need to relieve the stress of playing for the streak instead of playing the next opponent.
But I submit to you, or to whomever else out there I need to submit (I am a little rusty on the Shakespearian protocol), that these three reasons do not apply to this year’s Gator edition. Focus has never been a problem and continues to serve as no hindrance. Just witness the recent run of ten games out of 14 that were ten point games or less at the five minute mark – home and away, good teams and bad – in all of which Florida kicked in the laser focus and won in the clutch. They must be satisfied with their ability to focus in the clutch in close games, because in the last two games since that 14-game stretch, the Gators decided to settle the issue much earlier, reaching the 5-minute mark with leads of 20 points or more.
As for the players getting caught up in their own hype and media adulation, nothing could be farther from reality. Billy Donovan has this team living humble and disciplined. And the four starting seniors who have been to 3-straight Elite Eights are more than enough to supplement the leadership of maturity and perspective needed to ignore the noise of the presses. Besides, this team has no lavish exposure on which to fall drunk on their own praise in the first place. I do not believe, as many do, that this team is being taken lightly or being underrated in the media. Florida has been getting its due everywhere the last several weeks. Most talking heads concede without reservation that Florida has the best shot (or one of the best) to win it all this year. The media just don’t seem to be very interested in it. The Gators are not underrated or underappreciated, but they are by far the most under-publicized team in the top 10 and probably the most under-publicized #1-ranked team in the last decade or so. Perhaps that has to do with their businesslike approach, or their lack of explosive eye-popping offense, the lack of lottery pick stars to feature on the highlight reels, the fact that the most powerful and impacting elements of their game – defense, ball movement, hustle, toughness, bench strategy, spacing, moving without the ball, etc. – are not aspects of the game easily packaged in an exciting 90-second clip nor easily discussed by the pundits and broadcasters who are fond of more dramatic and smack-worthy exploits. Probably all of the above.
As for the need to relieve the stress and pressure of playing for the streak instead of playing the next opponent, I think that ship has sailed. They already broke the school record for most consecutive wins and they’ve already tied the SEC record for most conference wins in a season. If they beat Kentucky, they will tie the Wildcats’ 2011-12 squad for the most consecutive wins over SEC opponents in the same season at 18 (that includes SEC Tournament games – Kentucky won 16 consecutive regular season games that year, then the first two of the SEC Tourney before losing to Vanderbilt in the title game). Yes they would like to break the single season SEC win record and hold that alone, and they’d surely like to tie and break the mark for consecutive wins against SEC opponents in the same season (if they are even aware that it exists), but to do that they will have to beat Kentucky at home on Senior Night, and no game in the regular season ever does more to focus the Gator team than that one. And after watching Florida face LSU and South Carolina – fresh off a win over Kentucky – and toss them around like rag dolls, does anyone think that this ear-to-ear-smiling group is feeling the pressure and stress of a win streak? They may have felt a little pressure earlier in the year, but they certainly don’t appear to be now.
So … the only issue I can see coming into play here is simple random odds. Odds are that every team is going to lose eventually. Have an off night. Run into a hot team or a hot player or two that just go off one night and play a mile over their heads. An untimely injury. An unforeseen matchup problem. These things happen, eventually. Better to lose before the NCAA tourney and get that sort of blindside loss out of the way. Of course, since this sort of thing is very random, there is no reason to believe that losing just before the NCAA tourney won’t stop it from happening again in the tourney. But regardless, that is the standard fan mindset. Never satisfied with the standard, Gator fans have to seek out more. So I dug a little into the historical record to see if this common axiom had significant basis in reality.
Conference Tourney: Deep Run or Early Exit?
The assumption here is that nobody wants to lose to hated Kentucky and their insufferable whining sleazeball cheater of a coach, at home, on Senior Night. So the question “To Lose or Not to Lose” can only be answered in the SEC Tournament. It is a long-standing debate for fans of teams whose NCAA ticket is punched and seeding relatively or firmly secure, whether it is better to win the conference tournament (thus adding another title to the season and another trophy in the display case, while building team confidence, momentum, getting more practice time and cutting short the layoff before the NCAA Tourney) or to lose the first game of the tournament (thus giving the team a few days of extra rest, avoiding the exhaustion of a potentially difficult title game run, giving the coaches a few more days of preparation for the Big Dance and of course to refocus them and jack up their hunger for a tournament title – since they just flopped in the first try for a conference tourney crown). Those are the logical merits of the two sides. Both are rather persuasive.
But what are the real world merits of these two sides? The historical merits? Everyone can point to specific anecdotal instances when a team had an early exit from the SEC tournament and then had a long NCAA tournament run, and of course the very opposite as well: conference tourney title game followed by a one-and-done. And there are always instances of teams making deep runs (or early departures) in both tourneys. The 2006-07 season actually provided anecdotal evidence of both sides of the argument. That year, both Vanderbilt and Tennessee were one-and-done in the SEC tournament and turned around and went to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs. Also in 2007, Arkansas played four games to get to the SEC Tournament title game, only to have a one-game exit in the NCAAs. Looking at those data, you would assume there is great merit to the mantra that a team is better off losing early in the conference tournament. However, that same year Florida played three games – the maximum possible from their seeding to reach and win the title match – and went on to play 6 games in the tourney, topped off of course by winning the national title game.
So we have to look at the long-term numbers to get a handle on this. So I took a peek at the SEC tournament success of every SEC team that made the NCAA tournament field since 2000, the year of Florida’s first national title game appearance. I divided teams into the two sides of the debate by early SEC Conference exits (playing just one or two tournament games) and deep SEC Tourney runs (three or four games) Over those fourteen years, teams that had early exits from the conference shindig won an average of 2.0 games per year in the NCAA tourney. Over the same period, teams that made deep runs in the SEC tourney won an average of 2.6 games in the Big Dance. Since nobody plays a fraction of a game (unless of course they schedule a game on the deck of a battleship), that rounds up to one extra game advantage in the NCAAs for teams that stick around in the SEC Tournament.
That would certainly be worth the effort. The difference between making the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8 is big. Between making the Elite Eight and the Final Four? Huge.
But 14 years is a long time and the college game and the complexion of the SEC have changed since then, even if only slightly. So I looked at just the last five years to see if a deep SEC tourney run has helped or hindered teams in the NCAAs. Since the 2009 season, teams that are dismissed from the SEC invitational early have won an average of just 1.5 games in the NCAA party. Meanwhile teams that have made 3-4 game runs in the SEC tourney have average 3.1 games in March Madness. That’s more than double the number of wins on average in the NCAA tourney for those teams who have the deepest runs in the SECs. Double the games means an Elite Eight appearance instead of a second round dismissal; a title game appearance instead of the Sweet 16. That’s more than huge. That’s yuuuuge!
Checking the Champions: To Streak or Not to Streak
But the ultimate target for this team is not just a nice, deep NCAA tournament run, but the national championship. So to consider the odds of winning it all, and how it might be affected by the success in the conference tournament, we have to look at the big picture outside the SEC.
Again, looking at all the national title winners since 2000, I sought to find a pattern that can lend guidance in our quest for truth in fan strategy. Of the last 14 national champions in men’s basketball, all have played a conference tournament preceding the Big Dance. As with the SEC Tourney history, extremes exist to argue both points. North Carolina, as example didn’t even reach their conference title game in 2009, going two-and-through while Connecticut had to win five games in the 2011 Big East tourney to even qualify for the NCAA tournament. So again we must look at the aggregate numbers to find some solid analytical ground.
Of these 14 champions, 10 of them (71%) won their conference tournament preceding the NCAA boogaloo. And to mirror the SEC analysis, looking at the most recent history, 8 of the last 9 national champions (89%) had also cut down the nets in their conference tourney three weeks prior. This bodes well for Florida if they were to win the SEC tournament.
Of course, there is much more historical burden than that riding on the backs of these Gators. If they beat Kentucky Saturday and win the conference tourney, they would not just be taking a 3- or 4-game winning streak into the NCAAs. So let’s see how the past national champions have fared in the final weeks or months heading into the tournament.
The last 14 national champions have averaged 9.4-straight wins to end their seasons. This ranges from six wins to 16, however the last six of each team were wins in the NCAA tournament. When you subtract those 6 NCAA Tournament games, the last 14 national champs entered the Big Dance with win streaks that averaged just 3.4 games.
To win the national title without losing again this season, the Gators will have to win 32 consecutive games.
This perhaps does not bode so well.
In fact, it looks like losing multiple games at the end of the season has sometimes been a good thing. Five of the last 14 champs lost their last game prior to the NCAA tourney starting. The 2004 UConn team lost their season finale before winning the Big East and NCAA tourneys. The Florida Gators lost 3 of their last 5 games in the regular season in both of their national title seasons of ’06 and ’07. The 2011 champion Connecticut team lost 7 of their last 11 regular season contests. That makes nine of the last 14 national champions who were served a bitter taste of defeat – sometimes on multiple occasions – soon before the NCAA tournament tipped off.
As you can see, the results of this historical analysis do not lead to any firm conclusions. Just some directional suggestions. And the understanding that trends aside, every season is different. The data suggest that it may be beneficial for the Gators to win the SEC tournament, but lose to Kentucky. At home. In the season finale. On Senior Night. Yuck. Not going to happen. So the gauntlet is to press on and defy the historical odds. Can the Gators do it?
The one champion team in the last 14 years that comes closest to approximating Florida’s win streak challenge this year was the 2012 Kentucky team. Had they not lost the title game of the SEC tournament (by seven points), their national title game victory would have been their 31st-straight win that season. To win out, Florida will have to win 32-straight. Kentucky in 2012 couldn’t do it. Is it even possible for anyone to do it in the modern age?
We will see.