Washington Post – Steve Yanda – January 27, 2009 – The visiting locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium was open to reporters for roughly 10 minutes Saturday following the fourth-worst loss in Maryland men’s basketball history, more than twice as long as usual after a loss.
After falling to Duke by 41 points, Maryland Coach Gary Williams allowed his players to face questions no 18- to 22-year-old wants to answer. How did this happen? How did it get this bad? Where do you go from here?
Minutes earlier, Williams addressed similar queries. The Terrapins (13-6, 2-3 ACC) had two days to recover before tonight’s matchup at home against Boston College (15-6, 3-3), and the tone with which Williams approached his players in the aftermath of such a stinging defeat will play a crucial role in how his team will recover.
“That’s part of being an athlete and being a coach is getting embarrassed and then being able to come back,” Williams said Saturday. “That makes us 2-3 in the league, I believe, and we have two home games next week and we’ll be ready to play Tuesday night. At this point, that’s the key: getting back and being ready to play on Tuesday night.”
There are some, such as Boston College Coach Al Skinner, who believe — at least publicly — that the happenings in one game, no matter how positive or negative they may be, do not carry over into the next. And in an ideal, competitive environment, that theory would hold true.
But according to John F. Murray, a sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Fla., the team aspect of basketball prevents its participants from completely setting aside previous outcomes when preparing for future opponents, even if doing so would serve them best.
“You have to realize that it is just one game and maybe not try to reverse it completely, but try to be more competitive,” Murray said. “That kind of an outcome, you weren’t even competitive. Something went terribly wrong. You can’t put that completely out of your mind, perhaps, but you have to focus on each game individually. I think all players are subject to thinking about the past, even though, ideally, you’re not supposed to. It probably does leave somewhat of a scar until you’re able to turn it around.”
Michigan State fell to then-No. 1 North Carolina by 35 points in Detroit on Dec. 3, a loss that left players and coaches feeling angry, concerned and embarrassed, according to Spartans associate head coach Mark Montgomery. But, Montgomery said, the coaches knew that employing a positive front when dealing with the players was their best chance at getting them to move beyond the defeat.
As soon as Michigan State’s bus returned to East Lansing, the Spartans held a team meeting in the locker room in which each player had to come up with a way in which the team could improve its performance. After an hour, the coaches left, but the players remained to talk among themselves. Montgomery knew then the staff had struck the proper chord.
“That’s the toughest thing as a coach,” Montgomery said. “You’ve got to figure out what tone you want to take with your guys — the hard approach or more of an understanding. I think we took more of an understanding approach, but we were firm that we’ve got to do this better or we didn’t do this.”
Montgomery acknowledged that while players should be unaffected by previous outings, their confidence — “swagger,” as he put it — can be shaken by a poor performance during a previous outing. A swift turnaround, then, is vital. Michigan State, currently ranked No. 9, won 11 straight games following the loss to North Carolina.
But that defeat came during nonconference season. Maryland was not so fortunate. In addition to having less time to correct their flaws, the Terrapins must also prepare for a higher caliber of opponent.
Murray said that “it can often be helpful to have a good whipping every now and then” because it forces coaches and players to be more accountable. But that implies that a lopsided loss carries at least some weight into future endeavors, a notion Skinner rejects.
Skinner said Sunday he would not address the Terrapins’ previous outing with his team in regard to how it might affect their mentality tonight.
“The fact that it’s a league game and we’re going on the road, we’ve just got to make sure we’re prepared,” Skinner said. “The last game has no impact on the next game. That’s my feeling about it. I don’t look at it either way, whether it works for us or works against us. It’s the same.”
Except it’s not, not for Maryland, anyway. Williams said yesterday he was “very positive” in dealing with his players after the Duke loss. He said he reminded them of how well he thought they had played in their two previous road games and implored them not to dwell on one horrific performance.
When asked whether he thought, at least subconsciously, that the Duke loss would carry over to tonight, Williams lowered his eyes and responded briskly.
“It can’t,” he said. “It can’t. That’s not an option.”