Friday, March 13, 2009

UConn/Syracuse Play A Classic

#20 Syracuse 127, #4 UConn 117, 6OT
This game has been beat to death in the blogosphere, so I'm going to see if I can talk about it from a slightly different angle. First of all, I don't want to talk about where this game rates among the best games ever. Not only is that a silly conversation in general, it's meaningless right after the fact. We all suffer from very bad cases of recent-ism, and any "best" team or game or player needs to be treated like a fine wine: let it sit for a while. And so for the same reason that I don't believe in talking about the "best team ever" before the team actually wins their season title ('05 USC football or the '07 New England Patriots, anybody?), I also don't believe in talking about best games before the crowd even leaves the building. Besides, shouldn't quality of play be a factor in "best game"? This game was at a fairly high quality through regulation, but it really tailed off in overtime. This is what you'd expect, of course, with players tiring. There was a reason why Syracuse actually improved when Eric Devendorf fouled out and was replaced by a senior walk on who had played about 20 minutes all season long. Devendorf had simply become so exhausted that he wasn't doing anybody any good on the floor. What I did love about the style of the game was that it was good old fashioned Big East basketball, with a lot of big, tough players just brawling. The fact that so few fouls were called had everything to do with the referees swallowing their whistles, and nothing to do with the kids not playing aggressive defense.

One thing that I never understand about most "analysis" of games like these is that they try to create a story, they try to create a reason. That Paul Harris made those plays at the end of the game because he was motivated by his failures earlier in the game. That Syracuse had depth that finally came through in the 6th overtime. That Syracuse was exacting revenge for what happened earlier this season. That UConn just couldn't get the shots they wanted in overtime.. The fact is that all of those reasons are crap. A game like this doesn't have a winner for a reason, it has a winner because of randomness. If the referees had started the clock 1/10th of a second later on one play then we wouldn't have even had an overtime. How did the Syracuse yearning for revenge or Paul Harris's motivation from earlier failures cause Jeff Adrien to miss two wide open 10 foot jumpers at the end of two different overtime periods? When a game ends like this, the fact is that it's luck. And that's not to take anything away from a wonderful performance by Syracuse, because it would have been a wonderful performance even if Jeff Adrien had hit those jumpers to end overtimes #3 or 5. In sports we too often believe that we live in a completely deterministic world. But that's just not the way the world is.

We too often see this determinism in all aspects of life. It's not just the world of sports. Just look at the current financial crisis: everybody has their one sentence answer for what happened. George W Bush caused it by allowing banks to over-leverage. Bill Clinton caused it by repealing Glass-Steagall. Jimmy Carter caused it with the Community Reinvestment Act. I watched Jon Stewart being interviewed last night by Jim Cramer yesterday (or at least it seemed that way, since Stewart just gave a speech the whole time and never really let Cramer speak), and he seemed to be arguing that everybody knew this would happen. That somehow anybody with enough knowledge in 2007 would have seen this coming, that it should have been obvious what would happen when AIG leverages 30-to-1. As if financial commentators knew that the market was going to drop by 50% and were just lying to people so that their CEO friends could squeeze every last cent out of our 401(k)s before they collapsed. The reality is that nobody saw this coming or they'd have taken their own money out. The market is forward looking - if the market in 2007 thought that the world economy would shrink in 2009, it would have tanked back in 2007. Everybody got caught by surprise because the market is not simply deterministic. Things happen that we can't explain, that don't have a single reason and that don't necessarily have a moral reason. Nobody's "evil" actions caused this. As much as we want to, we can't blame the world's ills on one person or group.

And while I know that I got really sidelined here on a topic that has nothing to do with sports, and it seems as if I'm downplaying this game last night, I actually think that this is a positive view of sports. Everytime I hear an announcer say "You had to know he was going to lead his team to victory night - you could see it in his eyes during warmups" I just laugh. If any of us could determine the victor of a game by staring some player in the eyes, we'd all be watching every warmup period we could, with our bookie on speed dial. If everything happened for a simple reason then there would be no surprises. I mean, why even bother watching that game last night if Syracuse was destined to win because they were out for revenge? Why even watch that sixth overtime, since it was pre-determined that Paul Harris would atone for his failures at the end of the fourth overtime? We watch because those aren't the reasons that Syracuse won. Syracuse won because some shots rolled in and some shots rolled out. Because we had no idea what would happen, and we just wanted to be there to see what unfolded. It's the randomness that makes sports so great. So don't try to take it away because you need a simple explanation for everything.

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