Momentum is important in all sports; a single play can change the landscape of a game at any time, whether it's a stolen base by Dave Roberts swinging the biggest playoff comeback in sports history, or a Dixon-to-Jaison pass on 3rd and 14 that spawned the craziest 75 seconds in Autzen Stadium history. But the idea of momentum shift seems to have more weight in basketball than other sports. Is there truth to this idea, or is it just perceived importance? Furthermore, is basketball the most psychological sport?
To start, let's look at some games. For objectivity's sake, let's look at yesterday's games. Basketball has been described as a game of runs. Is that true, or perceived? First game up, Kansas-Colorado:
6-4 Colorado, 17:10 in the first half. Kansas goes on a 20-2 run over the next 7:48, making it 24-8 Jayhawks. Colorado then goes on an 18-6 run to cut the lead to 4, including a 2:21 stretch where the #1 team in the country didn't score a point. The second half included a 6-0 Buffaloes run in the first 1:42, and Kansas not making a field goal in the last 3:56 of the game, allowing Colorado to send the game into overtime. In overtime, Kansas scored the first seven points of the period and never looked back.
In what other sport would you see the #1 team in the country blow a sixteen point lead, and not make a single field goal for the final four minutes of the game? Florida was shut down by Alabama in the second half of the SEC Championship game, but Alabama got ahead early and held the lead effectively. Baseball has closers, whose job it is to squelch any glimmer of momentum in the late innings. But large lead fluctuations are par for the course in basketball. Don't believe me? How about another game from yesterday? USF-Georgetown is it!
USF makes a layup with 12:03 left in the first half, tying the score at 12-12. Georgetown then goes on a 6-0 run and a 15-5 run, going into halftime up by nine. In the second half, USF goes on a 21-5 run, including a stretch where the Hoyas failed to make a field goal for seven minutes.
Seven minutes! Georgetown is ranked #8 in the country!
It isn't just college basketball either. Seven of the eleven NBA games yesterday featured a point swing of ten points or more in less than a four minute span. Further digging would undoubtedly reveal much of the same. So what causes momentum to be so important in basketball?
The psyche of the athlete is fickle. Athletes will inevitably encounter slumps, for reasons physical or otherwise. But if the athlete had performed well once, why is it so difficult to duplicate? This idea is most evident in basketball because there are the least outside factors. In baseball, a batter is facing different pitchers who throw different pitches at different speeds. A quarterback making a pass has to deal with timing, throwing mechanics, defensive tendencies, and intangibles. But in basketball, the rim is always ten feet high. The three-point line is always the same distance from the basket. Yet basketball players will get into funks where they can't hit open three-pointers. The crowd plays a role. Basketball crowds are the most influenced by on-field play. Autzen fans will keep screaming at USC when we're up 27 points in the fourth quarter, but the Pit Crew gets quieter the bigger the scoring margin in, in either direction. It becomes easier for the road team to get back in the game if the crowd isn't pouring it on. The true nature of basketball and all the points that are scored play a factor as well. The tougher it is to score in a sport, the harder it is to build momentum. Ultimately, it comes down to confidence. Look at the best basketball players of all time. Michael Jordan was an brash, extremely confident trash-talker who proved to be the most electrifying player of all time. Same with Kobe and Bird. These players are not only supremely confident in their own abilities, but they make their teammates better through confidence.
So why has this Duck team been unable to sustain any level of confidence? A sweep of the Washington schools on the road? Great, that's good momentum into a stretch of home games. But where did it all go? Faced with adversity in the OSU game, the Ducks shot 5/20 over the last 11 minutes. Momentum gone, confidence gone. Then, four straight stinkers. During the Aaron Brooks era, we had that alpha dog that could instill that confidence in the team. That, more than anything, is what we miss most about AB. Dunigan, as highly touted as he is, is not a court confident personality. The closest thing we have now is Matthew Humphrey, who showed his mettle during the UCLA overtime. Teondre Williams showed that in non-conference play, but his confidence has been thrown by the coaching staff yanking his minutes around. He played 25 or more minutes in every game from UC Davis to St. Mary's, and has averaged 14 mpg since. What gives? He was jumping out of the gym during the month of November. Now he's back to the passive player we were indifferent towards last year. Is it coincidence that our two most polarizing personalities, Freddie Jones and Brooks, led to the most success as a program since the Tall Firs?
This needs a solution or else it's just complaining. And this solution is already in place, and off to a good start. By re-evaluating player roles prior to last week's game, Coach Kent and his assistants took steps in the right direction by trying to establish lineup continuity and familiarity, as well as instilling confidence in the players by saying, "We're going to play this way, and it's going to work," rather than, "Let's try some stuff and see what happens." If we come out with confidence and the belief that we're actually a good basketball team, we can live up to the idea that we're a dangerous team that can play with anyone.