Georgetown lost a couple of games. In a row, even. But in context they are only flesh wounds: Two losses by a total of three points to teams that were not only ranked in the top 10 before the games, but are conference rivals. Georgetown was unbeaten. Not unbeatable.
Don't overreact. Even if the Hoyas were to lose a few more times before the NCAA tournament, the road to the national championship still would lead through the District of Columbia. The team to beat lives here.
But in light of recent developments, it seems appropriate to pose the question -- Is losing good for a team?
Not in the NCAA tournament, obviously. Lose there, and you're gone.
But you often hear coaches say during the regular season that too much of a good thing actually might be a bad thing, that an unbeaten team can get smug or complacent, that it may be less receptive to coaching, because although players regularly hear that they can be beaten, in fact, they have not been. Joey Meyer of De Paul calls this "the Fat Cat Syndrome." In that case, Meyer says, "You can capitalize on a loss because players will finally believe you."
Digger Phelps of Notre Dame goes so far as to say, "I'd hate to go into the tournament unbeaten, ranked No. 1. It's not healthy. You need to taste (defeat) during the season." Phelps believes that a well-positioned loss "helps put your system back into perspective. A lot of games you do dumb things, but still win. But when you lose a few, the kids concentrate more on the dumb things. They pay more attention to the game films." This view is echoed by Stanford's Tom Davis, who says it is his experience that "players pay closer attention to you after a loss than after a win."
However, lest we get too carried away with the salutary benefits of losing, remember that coaches aren't so enamored of it that they try for it. I have yet to read about a coach being fired for winning too much. "After the game, a coach may rationalize and say that the loss should help the team," says Mike Cingiser of Brown. "You can even say it before a game, although you wouldn't believe it. But there's no way any coach says it during the game." Some coaches don't think losing is ever good -- not even in the long view. Arizona State's Bob Weinhauer is one. He says, "Give me an opportunity to go into the tournament undefeated and I'll take it gladly. I've never felt it was important to lose a game to learn a lesson. I'd much prefer to play poorly and win. I don't think you gain anything from losing."
I'm sure that under certain circumstances a loss can be healthy. I've heard too many coaches say you can learn from losing not to believe it.
But as long as we're keeping score, I'd rather win them all.
I side with Cingiser, who says, "You're probably better off going into the tournament 27-1 than 28-0; less pressure. But if I had my druthers, I'd rather be 34-0 and national champion than 33-1 and national champion."
And as long as we're talking about national champion, what better source to tap than John Wooden, the coach who won more of them than anyone? Wooden has 10 on the wall. He won once with three losses, twice with two losses, thrice with one loss and four times with no losses at all. Since Wooden retired 10 seasons ago, only Indiana's Bob Knight, in 1976, has closed out the tournament still unbeaten. If anyone is qualified to speak about the pressure that accompanies a long winning streak, it's Wooden. At times during his career at UCLA his teams won 41, 47 and the record 88 in a row.
Pay attention now.
"In the 88-game streak," Wooden says, "my players were never bothered until we got close to 60, which was then the record. Near 60, I sensed them getting a little tight. But once we tied the record -- even before we broke it -- they were no longer tight. There was no longer any pressure. I think the notion that a long winning streak puts more pressure on you is wrong. It puts more pressure on your opponent. I have always liked to be in the spot where teams that played us were ready to celebrate when they even came close to beating us. I told my players it was to our advantage that teams felt they had nothing to lose by playing us. That meant they put us on a little pedestal. I wanted to keep it that way."
Wooden remembers losses that helped; he cites the famous Astrodome game in 1968, when Elvin Hayes outscored Lew Alcindor and Houston beat UCLA, 71-69. "It made it much easier for us when we met them in the NCAA tournament semifinals," Wooden says. UCLA squeaked by in the rematch. By 32. But Wooden is not certain all the losses helped. "When Notre Dame broke the streak in Bill Walton's last year, people wrote that it was good for us; they said it ensured that we'd win the national championship. We didn't. We lost twice more that season, and lost in double overtime to a fine North Carolina State team in the semifinals of the tournament. I can't say those regular-season losses were good for us. Your team will be about the same strength going into the tournament if it's undefeated or has one loss. But I doubt with four or five losses I'd have the same confidence going in as I would with one."
Wooden says, "People say you can learn from your defeats. But you can learn from your victories, too. In close games, both the winning and losing teams make about the same number of mistakes. Syracuse made the same amount as Georgetown. So did St. John's. Maybe more. But it's up to the coach to make his team aware of its mistakes, win or lose. You can't let your team become complacent. That's the coach's job."