The always entertaining and interesting Jonah Lehrer has an essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal which uses recent studies to examine The Superstar Effect: “While challenging competitions are supposed to bring out our best, these studies demonstrate that when people are forced to compete against a peer who seems far superior, they often don’t rise to the challenge. Instead, they give up.” Tiger Woods is the prime example, and though the studies mostly revolve around individually geared performances from SAT’s to performing in the work place, the effect applies more generally to underdogs.
Competing against a superstar could make people even more likely to choke. “Anything that makes us more aware of superior performance will also make us more aware of our own performance, which can be a bad thing,” Ms. Beilock says. “That’s why it’s always best to sit at the front of the class when taking a hard test. You don’t want to start comparing yourself to anybody else.”
The essay is worth reading in its entirety, but the obvious comparison for our purposes is Butler. So far, the Bulldogs have taken down #1 Syracuse and #2 Kansas State on its way to tonight’s National Championship game, and The Superstar Effect has made no difference to them. Tonight, though, it’s a different story. Butler will be playing against on one of the biggest stages againt one of the most storied programs in college basketball history. It’s the matchup between a Mid-Major versus a Super-Major; a 33-year-old coach versus a coach who’s been here 8 times; a Big Three versus an Only One.
Here’s three matchups to watch for tonight:
Coach K vs. Brad Stevens
Will Brad Stevens be able to outcoach Coach K? Will he be able to get his guys to execute on offense? These are big questions heading into tonight as Butler prides itself on defense and The Big Three for Duke have been the most prolific scoring trio all season. Butler will get destroyed if they shoot 15-for-49 again against Duke, so it will be all about how the Bulldogs respond. The Blue Devils arguably played their best game of the season on both ends of the floor against West Virginia and it won’t get any easier for Butler.
Coach K took over at Duke at 33 and won his first National Championship at 39. Bobby Knight was the youngest coach in D-I history to win a title at the age of 35. At 33, Stevens, who looks like he could play on the team, would beat the record by a full two years. What has helped Stevens greatly has been the modern emphasis of statistics and number crunching that has infiltrated basketball. Stevens is a junkie for the stuff, but his greatest accomplishment has been translating this affinity into wins and making it clear to his players that if they execute they won’t lose. Coach K has all the experience behind him that makes this dependency on numbers less of a factor, and though he is known as a tough coach, he appears to enjoy this team immensely and has been more at ease this season than ever before. Having said all of this, the edge clearly goes to Coach K, especially if it comes down to crunch-time situations, but one has the feeling now that Stevens will have a plan to be able to handle what Duke throws at him.
Pressure on Duke vs. Pressure on Butler
Both teams are going to be nervous – it’s the National Championship. Still, the pressure is more on Duke than Butler. They are the favorites, the big program, and everything is pointing to their victory. Butler has come out in each game this tournament like their not surprised to be here, as evidenced by the most tame and un-joyous Final Four victory celebration I’ve ever seen. Tonight, they come into the game with nothing to lose while Duke has everything to lose. Going back to the Lehrer piece, the pressure aspect going into tonight may actually favor the Bulldogs:
When students are placed in a high-pressure competition solving difficult math problems—Ms. Beilock offers them cash rewards for winning—they perform significantly worse than students who are told to simply try their best. (The effect is especially pronounced among top performers.) According to Ms. Beilock, the anxiety triggered by the tournament eats up precious mental resources, thus making it harder to come up with the answer. We try harder and do worse.
Stevens surely expects that his players will do more than just “try their best,” but they have already accomplished amazing feats, while Duke may feel the pressure if they are trailing in the later stages of the game.
Gordon Hayward vs. Kyle Singler
According to Coach Stevens, Kyle Singler and Gordon Hayward are “guards in 6-8 bodies.” Really, they’re clones. Stevens went on to say: “The difference between most of those guys and Singler and Gordon are they can floor it and they can go in either direction. They can get by guys on the bounce. They can post. … They play like 6-1 guys … great, great ability.” Hayward does everything for the Bulldogs, and when Michigan State’s Korie Lucious purposely missed his second free throw at the end of the game, it was fitting that Hayward came flying in to secure the rebound that would seal Butler’s trip to the Championship. Hayward’s 19 points the other night was the 17th time this season he’s led the Bulldogs in scoring, and his nine rebounds marked the 21st time he’s led the Bulldogs in rebounding this season. There are a lot of interesting matchups tonight, but this is definitely the one to watch. Singler and Hayward will be guarding each other when playing man defense, but both teams run a lot of offensive sets and defensive switches that will lower the frequency of the matchup. The matchup hinges more on what each player does for their respective teams, and though Jon Scheyer takes off more pressure from Singler than Shelvin Mack does for Hayward, Singler and Mack are the rocks of their teams. I’d go as far as to say that whichever player outperforms the other is whose team will go on to win, that is, if Brian Zoubek doesn’t eat the entire Bulldogs team first.
Who do you think is going to win tonight? By how much? What’s the matchup you’re looking for?
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