|St. Joseph (Conn.), Wisconsin Lutheran, Christopher Newport, Webster and Transylvania each enter the weekend still sporting a zero in the L column.|
By Ryan Scott
The constant struggle for basketball coaches and players is not allowing the wins and losses to get to you. There are wins that feel like losses, because the execution was not there or the focus or the communication. There are losses that feel like wins, because everything clicked and you played to the absolute pinnacle of your abilities.
There are some teams at the level where conference or national championships are the goal year in and year out – but every team, regardless of talent or ability, is seeking to maximize their potential, get better every day, play consistently and consistently well, peak in February. They’re all just trying to be the best they can be in the context of Division III basketball.
What happens, though, when the wins get louder? What happens when every stranger on the street wants to shake your hand or everyone in class keeps casting glances in your direction? How do you shake off the endless temptation to judge your performance by your record when there are cameras at practice and a big giant zero at the end of your record, like a target on your back?
We’ve got five teams in that situation in Division III basketball: entering the final few weeks of the season without having dropped a game. Whether they admit it or not, there’s added pressure as the streak builds up. You can not be aware of it – this is why, a lot of times, when a big streak ends, coaches are happy. They may have never said word one about it, but it was certainly a distraction that no longer exists. At the very least, the questions stop, and you do not have to work so hard to keep focused on the task at hand.
“I do not know how much our players are aware of it,” said Webster women’s basketball coach Jordan Olufson. “We have not talked about it one time. We appreciate the recognition and we’re grateful that it’s earning us more fans and more supporters, but what we’ve done so far is nothing if we do not keep moving forward. ”
Olufson exudes the mantra of focus. “I am an in-the-moment person,” he says. “When a player asks what time practice is on Friday, I tell her what time we’re meeting today.”
That perspective is important, especially for a team like Webster, from the SLIAC, where a Pool C selection is incredibly unlikely. Winning the conference tournament is paramount, winning every game you can before that is essential, and improving skills and experience, even in blowout wins, sets the foundation for success.
“You try to stress consistency,” says Glen Miller, coach of St. Joseph’s (Conn.), The last remaining men’s unbeaten. “Execution, getting better every day, playing a complete 40 minutes, but it’s very easy, when you’re undefeated, to play not to lose.”
The Bluejays have beaten every team on their schedule by at least ten points, but they’ve let some teams hang around much longer than they’ll be able to afford when the competition ratchets up. They’re facing back to back games against GNAC rival Albertus Magnus, and a Top 10 clash with Yeshiva in New York, right before the conference tournament, which they need to win every bit as much as Webster does.
“We do not talk about wins or streaks or losses,” adds Miller, “but our team is well aware that our league has never had an at-large bid.
Being a new program, St. Joe’s roster has been very much the same the last four years. These players missed out on the GNAC bid by a hair’s breadth in 2018-19 and used that experience to secure it the following year. They went out in the first round of the NCAA’s that season, but continue to build the mindset and intensity they’ll need to stay undefeated right through March.
It’s that familiarity with winning that proves so key to becoming comfortable with it. There’s a psychological difference between believing you can win every game and actually doing it.
“We’ve always had a slip up in late December or early January,” notes Transylvania coach Juli Fulks, “But this group really believes they’re going to win every game and is willing to do whatever we need to do to adapt when things aren’t going well. ”
Fulks points to a recent overtime battle with Rose-Hulman, where offensive rebounds and second chance baskets turned a loss into a win. That confidence was hard earned and intentional.
“We went to Canada on fall break and played three teams that were Division I or II level talent and then we played Eastern Kentucky, so when we played Tufts, they were the fifth best team we had played so far. Our players have had a lot of chances to go against high level talent. ”
Fulks also notes this preseason schedule as one reason her team does not need a loss to wake them up or help them focus. They’ve lost already. “They’re also really competitive,” adds Fulks. “They take losing in practice just as hard as losing in games and it motivates them to play better the next day.”
It’s no surprise that depth is a key factor across the board with our remaining undefeated teams – maintaining a high level of competition is essential to consistency.
“This is the deepest team of any of my really good teams here,” says Wisconsin Lutheran coach Klay Knueppel, “and we work really hard to bring Top 25 teams into our tournament every year.”
This year the Warriors beat WashU in that tournament, then went on the road to defeat Millikin and Chicago, all big-name programs, two with national championship banners. “After the Chicago game, I told the players they would understand just how big these wins are,” says Kneuppel. “We’ve only been around 30 years, to beat these schools with 100 years of history and so many resources is a big deal.”
For many of these teams, a long undefeated streak is a signal they’re ready to break into the next tier of programs. Transylvania took their show on the road and beat Tufts. Webster and Wisconsin Lutheran have significantly separated themselves from their conference opponents and will be really difficult draws come NCAA Tournament time.
For our final undefeated team, long winning streaks are old hat, but they are hoping this ones leads to the breakthrough they’ve been working for a long time. Under Bill Broderick, the Christopher Newport Captains have had seven double digit win streaks and are currently riding a 34-game streak that stretches to 2019.
“It was very cool the first time,” says Broderick, “This time we did not really pay much attention to it. When we hit 31, we broke the women’s basketball record that was set before I got here and now, I think, we have the longest win streak in any sport at school. It does not feel too different, though. We’re focused on other things. ”
This is the goal – for a coach to be able to say “we do not think about wins and losses” and you actually believe them. It’s basketball’s version of zen. In the moment. Focused on process. Obsessed with getting the little things right.
I asked Hope’s Brian Morehouse his thoughts on being undefeated now that their 61-game streak has come to an end. He said: “I do not think it impacted the way we prepare or practice at all. We are not changing anything just because we had an outcome we did not want. It’s go time, not look back time. ”
Win streaks are lots of fun for fans. They garner attention, which helps the program, and while they represent a lot of hard work, they also represent some measure of luck. There are fourteen teams in Division III with one loss – half of them by five points or less. The margin is very thin. If that’s the way you measure success, you’re going to spend a lot of time very frustrated.
The final piece of the puzzle is to have fun or at least enjoy the process. Playing basketball and succeeding on the level of these teams takes a lot of work, but if it only feels like work, why are you doing it? Knueppel notes that once his team’s streak started getting pretty big, once they’d had big wins and were in the rankings, there was a sense of tension and pressure, but they’ve worked through it and learned to enjoy what they’re accomplishing together.
The first thing I heard Ryan Turell say after IWU ended Yeshiva’s much celebrated 50-win streak was, “We got beat. We’ll get better. ” Even Broderick notes, “If we’re playing as well as we can and someone beats us, I can sleep at night.”
The reality is: there’s no secret sauce. Experience helps. Winning does, often, beget winning, but not because of the winning itself – because of the culture that supports it. Only one team ends with a win, pandemics notwithstanding, and every one of these teams (and 900 others) will fight like hell to get there. But I doubt a single one of them will miss the opportunity to truly enjoy the process.