A close study of the fragile psyches of college athletes would indicate that BYU's chances to upset the No. 2 Zags may be better than they appear.
The 2012-2013 BYU basketball team is unlikely to go down in school history as a particularly "clutch" group of players. The Cougars are a mediocre 2-7 against the nation's top 100 teams as ranked according to RPI, including a winless 0-4 against the top 50.
In other words, the boys in blue have had trouble winning big games against good opponents. There's just no way around that fact. It is among the main reasons why BYU won't be receiving an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, unlike in years past.
So, with all that said, there is no particularly good reason for anyone to have warm and fuzzy feelings about tonight's visit to Provo by the No. 2-ranked Gonzaga Bulldogs. They blitzed the Cougars by 20 points in Spokane on January 24, the first win in their current 10-game streak. They have yet to lose a game in West Coast Conference play, winning by an average margin of 18.5 points. They have defeated their previous two opponents, Santa Clara (a top 100 RPI team) and San Diego (a team that beat BYU), by 43 and 31 points, respectively. It's safe to say the Zags are rolling, in every sense of the word.
And yet, I am still left with a handful of amorphous reasons why I believe BYU could very well pull off an unlikely upset tonight at the Marriott Center.
None of these are basketball reasons. Let's be clear: Gonzaga is objectively much, much better than BYU in every way. The polls, the X's and O's, the advanced stats, the not-so-advanced stats, everything backs up that claim. There is no acceptable argument to the contrary. BYU will not beat the Bulldogs tonight because they are actually a superior basketball team. They are not.
No, these are intangibles — and intangibles matter, especially when we're talking about a group of young, relatively immature college students facing the opportunity to become the No. 1 team in the nation for the first time in school history.
You can read my (potentially insane) reasoning in the space below below:
No. 2 Is Cursed
Go ahead and laugh. I admit this notion sounds ridiculous on its face. The very idea that an arbitrary position in a mostly crap-tastic media poll could somehow be "cursed" is the height of foolishness. And yet, recent history can be quite convincing.
Observe: The No. 2-ranked team in the AP poll has lost in six of the last seven weeks. Not once or twice. Not a cute little coincidence. Six of the last seven weeks. I don't know about you, but that sounds like the makings of a statistically significant sample to me.
Now, this isn't to say that somebody has placed some kind of actual voodoo curse on this Gonzaga squad now that it has reached the No. 2 slot. I'm not actually crazy. But given what has transpired in recent weeks, do you really think the Zags haven't noticed the hazards that have befallen their vanquished brethren? Do you think a top 10 basketball team, intent on moving further up the ladder, did not cheer wildly when they received the news that each and every one of those previous No. 2s had lost?
Of course they did. Of course they know. And somewhere, even if it's in the very back of their minds, they will remember that fact when they take the floor tonight in Provo — and it will add to the...
In addition to having the track record of failure of previous No. 2s on their collective brains, the Zags will also show up at the Marriott Center flush with the knowledge that a victory over BYU will likely solidify them as the nation's No. 1-ranked team when the final poll of the regular season comes out on Monday morning.
With only a home tilt against lowly Portland on Saturday left on the schedule (a foregone conclusion), the Cougars serve as Gonzaga's last big challenge before the postseason begins, and all the national observers will be watching to see whether this scrappy upstart bunch from Spokane are really deserving of their votes as college basketball's best team.
As the seminal 20th century Western philosopher William Joel once said, "Pressure!"
To be sure, Gonzaga has been on big stages before and performed just fine. But this is uncharted waters for Mark Few's program. Never in school history have the Bulldogs been ranked No. 1. What's more, this is the first time they've even had a legitimate shot at it — their highest ranking in the AP poll prior to this season was a brief stint at No. 3 in March 2004.
So even though the Zags have done a lot of great things over the last 15 years, let's not forget that we're talking about a bunch of 20-year-old kids who now have the opportunity to make history and go down as legends at their school. They're just one road win away. Don't you think there's a chance that Kelly Olynyk and friends are getting a little tight just thinking about it? I bet so.
The "Nobody Believed In Us" Factor
On the contrary, BYU's situation could not be more different. There's literally nothing at stake for them here except pride. If they lose to Gonzaga, it's not going to affect their postseason outlook one iota.
Their future is set — barring a massive collapse against pitiful Loyola Marymount (currently 1-13 in league play!) on Saturday, the Cougars are locked in to the No. 3 seed for the WCC tournament in Las Vegas. They will have to win that event to make the NCAA tournament; otherwise, they'll be enjoying the not-so-friendly confines of the NIT for the first time in six years. Beating Gonzaga or losing to Gonzaga won't change that, for better or for worse.
And BYU's fans know that. They have been slowly abandoning the team since the Cougars self-destructed and doomed their tournament chances a few weeks back by losing to San Diego and San Francisco in the course of three days. Nobody believes this team has it in them to beat Gonzaga, even on their home floor. Heck, as of yesterday afternoon, the game wasn't even sold out yet — and this is Senior Night, against the highest ranking team to ever visit the Marriott Center.
Put simply, people have written BYU off until next year.
That kind of universal rejection can kill a team, but just as often, it can unite them. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons has written about this extensively over the years. He calls it his "Nobody Believed In Us" theory — that when everyone has counted a team out and they feel like only the guys in the locker room believe they can accomplish their goal, a team can rally together and far outperform the skeptics' expectations.
I don't know how broadly Simmons' theory can be applied or even how effective it is, but if ever a college basketball team was primed for such a response, the BYU Cougars would be that team.
Will they be that team? Will they rally together, defy the odds, and spoil Gonzaga's chance to become the nation's No. 1 team for the first time in school history? If I'm being logical, the answer is a resounding "No."
But as we've seen time and time again, sports aren't always logical. There's a mental and emotional aspect to them that is too often ignored, especially with college athletes. Kids freeze up. They crack under external pressure. They fail to meet our expectations. They sometimes lose to teams they shouldn't.
Gonzaga shouldn't lose to BYU tonight. They are the better team. We all know this. But that doesn't necessarily mean they won't.