by Matt Zemek (@MattZemek_CFN)
Each sport carries with it a unique competitive matrix in which certain characteristics matter more than others. Yes, there are some virtues (and deficiencies) that are magnified in any athletic competition, but some sports bring certain qualities to the fore in ways that don't emerge in other sports.
Football is a sport of toughness. Every-down players have to mentally square themselves with the reality of substantial physical contact on every play. Yes, concentration surely matters in football, but toughness is the central virtue in that sport.
Baseball and tennis are concentration sports. You have to watch the ball to the bat or the racquet. If you're not locked in, you're not winning.
Basketball certainly isn't a non-contact sport these days, so it's reasonable to claim that players do need to acknowledge the reality of contact. Yet, it's clear that roundball is a different beast when compared to pigskin. Hoops naturally requires concentration, but this isn't the standstill sport baseball is.
Basketball is a game of near-constant movement and flow. Even though fouls (many of them committed by Aaron Craft) aren't called nearly as often as they should be in the modern college game, basketball is not the gladiatorial encounter football is. Even though foul shots and inbounds plays demand precise actions from standstill positions, basketball certainly lacks the segmented quality of baseball, in which actions unfold and then cease, pitch after pitch after pitch.
If I had to come up with a crowning virtue in basketball, it's clarity. Concentration – the cousin of clarity – is about performing a specific task to its end with technique and precision: Look the ball into your hands; hold the goose-neck on the follow through of the shot; bend the knees before elevating on the release; make a jab step or pivot in the proper sequence. Clarity is more expansive in both its application and impact.
Clarity is something more than focus (a word that can suggest "tunnel vision" or the relentless pursuit of one thing to the diminishment of others). It is not single-mindedness of purpose. No, clarity is best defined as "knowing not just what you are supposed to do, but WHY you are supposed to do it and HOW you can do it in various situations." Clarity speaks to understanding, to conceptual mastery, to an ability to see the big(gest) picture.
Northwestern was depleted and undermanned on Thursday night against Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats played with passion and intensity. They played with a fair amount of concentration, certainly at the defensive end of the floor after an early Lenzelle Smith flurry knocked them off balance. They weren't crisp or precise, revealing the flaws of a patchwork roster whose members are not used to getting extended minutes or crunch-time opportunities. They performed admirably. They competed superbly. They very nearly stole a win against an assemblage of athletic specimens with superior skill sets.
What kept Northwestern from winning, though? Clarity. No play illustrated the consequences of NU's "clarity deficit" more than one of three late-game turnovers that killed the Cats against Ohio State.
The Buckeyes led, 53-49, with 2:40 left. NU's Tre Demps was cut off on a dribble drive, forcing him to turn away from the basket and out to the right wing, where Ohio State brought a double-team to try to pin Demps against the sideline, which acted as a third defender. As Demps saw the double-team coming, he realized that he was on the verge of being hemmed in. His reaction was to pass the ball to the middle third of the floor, near the right elbow. Lenzelle Smith, helping off his man on the weak side, instantly saw that Demps was being double-teamed and thought, quite correctly, that Demps might give up the ball. At the very least, Smith surmised that Demps would not be able to make a cross-court skip pass to the NU player he was leaving. Smith intercepted Demps's pass and robbed NU of a critical possession at a time when possessions came at a premium. Northwestern's inability to value the ball made the difference in a 10-point loss that was more like a four-point defeat.
What, exactly, manifested a lack of clarity on Demps's part? The point worth noting is that Demps's pass out of the oncoming double-team was made all too quickly, as though the primacy of getting rid of the ball – in and of itself – mattered more than doing something constructive in the face of a defensive maneuver. That's a "clarity deficit" in living color. Demps could have continued to dribble the ball toward midcourt, away from the double-team. He could have called a timeout. He still had time and space to survey the middle third of the floor, but he did not notice Smith swooping in as a help-side defender. Demps passed for the sake of passing; he did not pass for the sake of deconstructing Ohio State's defense.
Anyone who looks at the film of this game will notice that in the first half, Northwestern players – after making catches near each elbow area – occasionally had opportunities to either drive to the tin or shoot an open face-up jumper from 15 feet. Yet, in these situations, the players in question made no real reaction at all, suggesting that while knowing where they needed to be on the floor, they definitely did not know what to do in various situations.
Basketball's constancy of flow creates an amoebic reality, a constantly morphing picture for all five players on the court. This shape-shifting dimension gives basketball so much of its texture, and the mark of the fully enlightened offensive player is that he knows what to do with body and ball in response to various permutations. When a basketball team possesses clarity, it will never pass solely for the sake of passing or screen solely for the sake of screening. In the Princeton offense, young players – unproven players who have not logged many minutes and are getting time only because of the rash of injuries this team has endured in 2013 – can easily become preoccupied with being in a certain spot on the floor or performing a physical action at one point in a larger sequence. Knowing how to freelance within a structure, though, demands more than "insert fold A into slot B." Owning true clarity is so much more than memorization or the mechanical performing of an act.
Tre Demps knew the "what" of the situation with 2:40 left in regulation against Ohio State. He knew he had to beat the Buckeyes' double-team. However, Demps didn’t know "how" to beat OSU's maneuver, and that's because he didn't take an extra second to survey the court and understand "why" Lenzelle Smith Jr. was able to help off his man.
When Northwestern gains the added measure of clarity it lacked in crunch time against Ohio State, it will get better, and brave efforts will turn from moral victories into the kinds of scoreboard triumphs that have proved to be so elusive for this program in its sad, stomach-punched hoops history.