by Matt Zemek (@MattZemek_CFN)
One insight worth gleaning from Northwestern's victory over Purdue on Saturday is that confidence is more than just an attitude or the fruit of positive thinking. Confidence is borne of circumstances, responses and events. It is carried inside the mind of the players on the floor, but it also grows from convergences, from the intertwined realities that shape a given gameday.
What's one way of identifying an elite team or (individual sport) athlete? The best of the best perform repetitions with more machine-like consistency than their opponents. The best of the best perform said repetitions with reliability and sound technique under pressure. The best of the best perform the same actions they've always been trained to perform – jump shots, first serves, blitz pick-ups, inside-out swings to the opposite field with two strikes – when the weight of a given moment feels particularly oppressive. The goal of practice is to create a combination of muscle memory and mastery which enables athletes to demonstrate their skills in any situation, night after night. The best teams will reach that goal more than others.
Naturally, though, the desired goal won't always be reached. Being better than (or perhaps, not as awful as) an opponent won't always materialize. Only the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, and a few other lucky squads are able to realize the dream of any big-ticket sports outfit. Relentless consistency is elusive. Rough days at the office will arrive at some point. Human beings are imperfect creatures who don't get out of bed the same way every day. Attitude certainly does mean a lot – don't get the idea it doesn't – but the flow of play, the rhythm generated by a given game against a given opponent, also shapes the confidence of the competitors. This dynamic was very much at work for Northwestern – and against Purdue – on the first Saturday of February. Such a reality gives rise to one of the most fascinating and important dimensions of college basketball in any decade, season, or individual afternoon.
On some days, 19- and 20-year-old male members of the human species can't hit the side of a barn. On other days, they can't miss. Reggie Hearn and the rest of the Wildcats barely missed a shot in the first half against Purdue. Seven of the team's first eight threes dropped through the twine. Hearn made his first nine field goals. Tre Demps and Jared Swopshire made crucial threes precisely when Purdue cut a 15-point deficit to seven. Mojo, juju, aura – any and all of those four-letter words belonged to NU in this contest. Whatever "it" was or is, the Wildcats had "it." That's what "shooting with confidence" often looks and feels like.
It's such a mystery of the human mind and the body connected to it: Why does this seemingly magnetic effect exist throughout a roster of wing shooters? What was it about today that made Northwestern shoot so well as a collective whole? Northwestern began the day as the 11th-best (or second-worst) shooting team in the conference, but the Wildcats shot like an elite team against Purdue. The natural question is this: "Why can't such a display become more commonplace?" The easy inclination is to point to the players, but college basketball – like life – is more complex than that.
Remember: Confidence isn't just an attitude, but the product of in-game circumstances. There were organic reasons why this ideal scenario unfolded for NU against the Boilermakers.
Purdue started this game with a sleepy head. Center A.J. Hammons's alarm clock might have gone off later than he had wanted it to, but no one on the Boilers answered the bell in the first several minutes of this tilt. The Boilermakers needed a full half to get their teeth into the flow of competition. By that time, Northwestern's roster – not just one player, but the team at large – had developed a substantial degree of comfort on the court. As the first half continued, Northwestern tested that team-wide comfort zone with a few contested threes, but some of them continued to fall. The moral of the story is this: If you enable an opponent to feel comfortable, the dimensions of your opponent's comfort can expand and sprout to an uncontrollable extent. This is the danger and – on the other side of the coin – the eternal source of hope for any two college basketball teams when they meet on a solitary afternoon.
You can't help it if certain low-percentage shots from your opponent drop through the hoop. What you can do is to create situations in which your opponent will find it difficult to settle into a relaxed and easy rhythm. Purdue failed to carry out this specific task, and Northwestern took full advantage.
The larger lesson being explained here is that Northwestern hasn't encountered – and won't continue to encounter – many days like this. What happens when the pressure of the moment is greater, when a game starts in prime time and not at 11 a.m.? What happens when a foe plays physical and rugged defense, taking away the lane cuts that Northwestern executed with impunity against Purdue? What happens on the road? What happens against a team with quicker and more dynamic wing players?
Winning a game without any drama whatsoever is certainly an achievement for NU on a virtually perfect Saturday against Purdue (minus a seven-point sequence and a few other rebounding-based hiccups). The challenge for Northwestern in the pursuit of elite performance is to generate production when a foe offers much more robust opposition, and when game circumstances are anything but conducive to peak performance.