Translate Criticism into Improvement

This is a story you do not know that taught me to crave criticism in a way I never expected.

The summer before Kemba Walker was to lead UConn basketball to the Maui, Big East and NCAA Tournament Championship on his way to becoming a first round pick in the NBA draft, he was the new leader of a young team that entered the season unranked. Although he had demonstrated flashes of brilliance in the past, Kemba’s speed was out of control leading to poor possessions in transition. As a program that thrived off transition basketball- with Kemba the primary ball handler and decision maker- the coaching staff had to eliminate poor possessions, costly turnovers and unnecessary fouls that out of control play can bring. At the time, I was working as a video assistant with the men’s basketball program, tasked with compiling game clips of Kemba, coded by play result.

If you are unfamiliar with New York City point guards, a New York City point guard is defined by grit, tenacity and a desire to get to the rim under any circumstance. Not only was the criticism Kemba received from the coaching staff critical, it was critical of the style of play he was built on. Fast forward one year and if you follow me, you are now well aware of how this story goes. UConn won three tournament championship’s and Kemba produced one of the best seasons of any college athlete, ranking among the nation’s best in many statistical categories. When you analyze the stat line in the context of the criticism received, Kemba’s FG% improved while taking more shots, his Free Throws Attempted increased, and, his Turnovers and Personal Fouls decreased while playing more minutes. This is a stat line reflective of better possessions and decision making, or, the intended improvements in the criticism from the coaching staff.

I saw that even when faced with critical feedback of a career-changing nature, Kemba received the criticism, identified the lesson and made the intended improvements. Criticism led to improvements which transformed an unranked team into Champions.

This experience caused me to reflect on my own response to criticism. I immediately knew my reaction would have been much more defensive and I assume many others out there can relate- critical feedback of any variety can be devastating. But, after witnessing firsthand the success that originated from criticism, two questions kept popping into my head.

What criticism was I not receiving and what type of success was that keeping me from?

This story taught me to crave criticism as you cannot lose by receiving criticism. It is actually the only way to win…

Translate Criticism into Improvement

“The best way to prove yourself is show you are willing to improve yourself.”

We often find ourselves in disbelief when a quarterback throws an interception on consecutive possessions or, in the case of my mom, when a basketball player consistently misses free throws. It outrages us to the point where we question their ability and suggest a benching or even release. Are we open to the same criticism we give out? Are we as emotional about our own performance when we receive the same score in the same categories on a yearly evaluation or continue to commit the same weekly errors on the same weekly reports? Most importantly, are we improving?

If it hasn’t already the current digital transformation will soon create disruptive changes to industries that will have a significant impact on the future employment landscape, critical job functions and skills in demand. According to the World Economic Forum, in many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations did not exist 10 or even 5 years ago. The same report estimates that 65% of children entering grade school today will work in a job that is yet to exist. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly which industries these nonexistent jobs will infiltrate, but it is impossible to ignore the possibility.

In times of change, improvement is key. Change brings competition and improvement is necessary to stay ahead. The ability to receive feedback- whether that be from a manager, colleague, market or industry trend- and make the intended improvements will help decide who wins. Here are three common roadblocks to translating criticism into improvement and how to start addressing them.

We can’t receive criticism… 

Criticism, or critical feedback, can help us develop the humility, awareness and reflection necessary to become professionals in our field and reach our goals. Unfortunately, far too often it is absolutely devastating to receive criticism. Your face gets red, you start to sweat and your mind races. According to one study, our ego can become so defensive in these situations that it controls the flow of information to our brains. Let that sink in, our ego can actually censor what we hear. I am sure we can all painfully recall our reactions to these moments, it is our inclination after all! But if we never hear criticism, we never improve. Although this inclination may not be your fault, you can counter it. You can change your response to criticism from defensive to open or take the “critical” out of critical feedback if you will. To start, let’s redefine our definition of criticism to manage the negative emotional reaction.

If you have ever played sports (or hopefully read the introduction) you can understand the value of reviewing film with coaches and teammates- it keeps us honest about our performance. In 2014 Microsoft reached an agreement to add Surface Pro tablets to NFL sidelines providing instant video feedback/analysis to coaches and players (among other uses). At the time I was working with the Pittsburgh Steelers, on the sidelines for the debut of the tablet, responsible for distributing the tablet to players and coaches for review after each possession. No, I did not interact with Ben Roethlisberger aside from one particularly intimate moment when he overthrew a trash can and hit me with a piece of tape (I actually got a picture of this encounter, it’s at the end).

Think back to the last NFL game you watched. How many times did the camera pan to players huddled over a Surface Pro, watching clips from the last drive? It is a familiar scene but it’s important to acknowledge why they are glued to the screen. Critical feedback. Athletes at the highest level have trained themselves to receive feedback to the extent that it’s instinctual once they return to the sideline. Professional athletes are constantly seeking critical feedback, evaluating their performance and making improvements- this is how they continue to perform at a professional level. They accept criticism as the only means to improvement and more than just crave it, they seek it out. When you witness this scene in future NFL broadcasts it will hopefully serve as a reminder of the new definition of criticism.

If we recognize the importance of reviewing game tape, why don’t we do the same at work? If our objective is to be the professionals of our industry, why do we automatically become defensive and passive when presented with criticism? Work to redefine criticism as necessary to improving yourself to stay ahead of the competition, becoming the best version of yourself or reaching your potential. If you are competitive, view it as a challenge to improve. For those who are particularly bad at receiving it, expose yourself to more of it. The more feedback you are exposed to, the better you will become at managing the negative emotional reaction and translating that criticism into a lesson and improvement. Once you train yourself to accept that negative feedback leads to positive outcomes, you will begin to enjoy it and eventually crave it. You just need to be open to receiving it.

We need criticism. If we never hear criticism, we will never improve- it can be as simple as that. Athletes at the highest level have trained themselves to receive criticism due to the nature of their profession. We bear witness to their constant adaptation of critical job functions to win the next play or beat the next opponent. If they fail to receive criticism and make the intended improvements, they are replaced. Our industry could experience a similar need to adapt critical job functions to compete in the not-so-distant future. Would we survive in that competition, or, would we be replaced? Improvement starts with receiving criticism. Redefine it to manage the negative emotional reaction and expose yourself to more of it.

We aren’t getting criticism…

There are studies showing that when co-workers criticize us, we tend to avoid them. It is much easier to go straight to those who agree with us to receive reassurance. This is known as our support network. Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant has worked with organizations such as Google, the NBA and the U.S. Army on improving success at work. He suggests we take advantage of a different network, a challenge network. This network is the group of people who push us to get better by giving the feedback we don’t want to hear, but need to hear. This process of self-discovery leads to what is actually true, not what we believe to be true. The hard truths. When we become aware of how bad is the bad and how good is the good, we now have information we can work with.

Self-discovery starts with the challenge network. Try to find the smartest people in your life who disagree with you to understand their perspectives, the self-discovery of what is actually true. Begin to build your challenge network in the office, odds are you probably know the exact individuals. Leverage that challenge network into self-discovery. Make today the day you no longer avoid them but start to hear them. It is important to note that a challenge network is only beneficial if you are ready to listen and receive criticism.

We don’t know what to do with criticism…

A habit we can all develop is what psychologists call the second score. In this context, I like to think of it as your reaction score. When someone gives you feedback, they have already evaluated you- it’s out of your control. Instead, every time you receive feedback, rate yourself on how well you took the feedback- your second score or reaction score. Remind yourself that regardless of the content of the feedback, the major element to grade is whether you are open or defensive.

For example, you cannot control the C you just received on your performance review, however, you do control the current grade you receive for how well you took that C. When your second score proves you are open to criticism, you can then act on the intended lesson and improve. Practice the habit of hearing criticism and immediately asking yourself “what’s the lesson?” The answer leads down the path to improvement.

The Future

The dynamic, evolving world we live in is marked by the digital transformation. In fact, the Surface Pro example discussed earlier represents a digital transformation in the sports industry. This transformation is constantly reshaping how we live, learn and work while creating disruptive changes to business models that will have a profound impact on the future employment landscape, critical job functions and skills in demand. The ability to receive feedback -from a manager, colleague, market or industry trend- and make the intended improvements will help decide who wins.

It is difficult to pinpoint the impact of the digital transformation on job functions and anticipated skill needs. However, with the pace of change accelerating, we must recognize this trend to stay on top of it. In times of change, improvement is key. The most effective way to improve is by opening yourself to receiving criticism, identifying the lesson to be learned and translating that feedback into improvement.

As we learned, criticism led to the improvements which transformed an unranked team into Champions. But the story doesn’t end here, continued criticism and improvements have transformed an ex-college champion into a present NBA franchise scoring leader and future perennial All-Star.

You cannot lose by receiving criticism. It is not just the only way to win, it’s the only way to continue to win.

See you in the future.

Problem: We can’t receive criticism… 

  1. Redefine it to manage the negative emotional reaction and transform it to a focus on positive outcomes.

  2. Expose yourself to more of it.

Problem: We aren’t getting criticism…

  1. Identify and form a challenge network.

  2. Leverage challenge network for self-discovery.

Problem: We don’t know what to do with criticism…

  1. Focus on your second score.

  2. Develop habit of asking “what’s the lesson?” when criticized.

 

Big Ben

As promised, my moment with Big Ben.

 

 

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UConn Sport Management Alumni SportPath: Matt Ouimette

A few weeks ago I was asked by the UConn Sport Management Program to contribute my experiences working in the industry or “SportPath” to share with current students. Though my story is sport-specific I continue to use the lessons learned on a daily basis. During my sports career I have worked over 200 NCAA basketball, NCAA football, FCS football and NFL games from Connecticut to Hawaii- and it all started with an email.

Net Cutting

2011 Big East Tournament, MSG

Alumni SportPath: Matt Ouimette

As an incoming freshman to the University of Connecticut, I knew I wanted to get involved with the athletic department. While I was still in high school I emailed a former classmate working in athletics in the hopes of obtaining a position. After a few emails back and forth I found a home in the football equipment room- not what I had hoped for but I graciously accepted. Soon thereafter I was asked to fill a vacancy as a video assistant to the men’s basketball program. What started as a simple email resulted in working over 100 UConn basketball games all over the country.

Lesson 1: Maintain and utilize connections. Be genuine.

My position as video assistant required me to work home games and the occasional practice. Instead of limiting myself to the required duties, I tried to get as involved as possible. I attended as many practices as I could, assisted team managers when needed and completed each task I was given quickly and effectively. Due to my commitment I was given more responsibilities and was fortunate enough to work events such as the 2010 Preseason NIT, 2011 Maui Invitational and the now historic 2011 Big East Tournament.

Lesson 2: Take pride in your work no matter how small the task may be. Have passion.

In the excitement following our victory over Louisville to take the Big East crown and complete “5 Games in 5 Days” I was approached by a stranger. He told me UConn had forgot to cut down the second net and the MSG staff were about to remove the basket. He provided me a ladder in exchange for a piece of net. Unbeknownst to me, the man was the CEO of the software company I had used the previous four years at UConn. He offered me an internship on the spot.

Three months later I was in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the sidelines of Heinz Field testing Still Shot equipment for NFL use. Through the course of my internship I was exposed to numerous NFL, NBA and NCAA clients, creating valuable relationships in the process. I was also able to test instant replay software that was eventually adopted for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament.

Lesson 3: Network! Not just a simple exchange of contact information but tell your story and detail where you want to be. You may just find yourself in the right place at the right time!   

Link to original

Oh and I still keep my lucky piece of net with me at all times…

IMG_8486

Jalen Adams is already feasting on Kentucky (video)

Brian Kersey / adidas

Brian Kersey / adidas

Jalen Adams has yet to appear in a UConn uniform but he clearly has already adopted the “Hungry Huskies” mantra. Watch below as Adams feasts on Kentucky commit Isaiah Briscoe.

Luckily for Adams (and more importantly Briscoe), Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies have already played their part in a NCAA ruling to allow D1 programs unlimited meals for athletes.

However, upon further investigation, this beef has more sides than just the stuffing above. According to Reddit, Adams and Briscoe began their rivalry at the Ballislife All-American Game in early May, which naturally, as all great head-to-head matchups do, resulted in a social media war. The posts have since been removed but not before Twitter users grabbed these screenshots:

As high-profile players attending high-profile programs, both will be taught the ramifications for such youthful behavior. Nonetheless, it was funny. However, there can only be one winner and given the recent history of Kentucky-UConn matchups, it’s Adams.

Denham Brown, UConn and a new generation of Canadian Basketball

Four years ago Texas Longhorn teammates Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson became the first duo of Canadians to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft in almost 30 years. Two years later, the Cleveland Cavaliers made Anthony Bennett the first Canadian-born player to be drafted No. 1 overall. And last year, Andrew Wiggins and the Cavaliers made it two in a row. But before all of this, there was Jim Calhoun, Denham Brown and the 111 point game.

Jason Decrow/AP

Jason Decrow/AP

Mike Segar/Reuters

Mike Segar/Reuters

Contrary to public belief, Steve Nash is not solely responsible for the resurrection of Canadian basketball. No, that title must be shared with Toronto native Denham Brown with a little help from the foresighted recruitment efforts of Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies.

The above video is part of the Toronto Raptors #MyNorth marketing campaign which aims to highlight the history of the basketball scene in the Greater Toronto Area. There is no better place to start than Denham Brown. Though his 111 points came in a seemingly meaningless game (school had already been disqualified from the playoffs), the true impact was anything but meaningless for the Canadian basketball landscape. Brown was one of the first Canadian’s who followed the typical trajectory of an American recruit, frequently participating in AAU tournaments in the United States. Brown’s play caught the attention of UConn Head Coach Jim Calhoun, who chartered a plane north of the border to see the Canadian stud work out at a local Community Centre.

UConn’s Role

Jim Calhoun and the UConn Huskies were already ahead of the curve when it came to recruiting international talent. Said Calhoun in 2012, “When I first came here in 1986, we couldn’t compete (in recruiting) because we had five consecutive losing seasons. We were competing with the Villanovas, the St. Johns, the Georgetowns, the Syracuses… we needed to expand the parameters where UConn recruited.” Jim Calhoun is no dummy. He knew he was not in the running for top East Coast talent and took his search overseas. In fact, since 1999, UConn has had 12 foreign players on scholarship- from Israel to Tanzania (notable examples below). That’s more than traditional powerhouses North Carolina (2), Duke (4), UCLA (5), Michigan State (4) and Kentucky (4) according to numbers from 2012. As a competitor, Calhoun wanted the best talent- regardless of country. Little did he know one particular signing would open the door to a new wave of basketball talent for years to come.

Israel

Doron Sheffer

Canada

Denham Brown

Germany

Niels Giffey

UK

Ajou Deng

Tanzania

Hasheem Thabeet

Bob Child/AP

Bob Child/AP

Emergence of Canada’s other sport

Canadian players lacked exposure and Brown, largely considered the top recruit in the country, brought that exposure. His performance, though controversial in Canada, was featured in American publication SLAM Magazine, unprecedented at the time for a Canadian hoopster. Brown was one of the first true Toronto basketball success stories, a kid who was able to parlay his AAU showcases into a Division One scholarship into a National Championship. Now, it is much easier for this new wave of Canadian talent to find homes in the United States because NCAA programs are willing to look North of the border. Even Findlay Prep, a high school basketball powerhouse in Las Vegas, has taken on Canadian players such as Thompson, Bennett and Joseph in recent years. “Take a guy like Denham,” says Mike George, agent for Bennett. “He’s been playing against Americans here and there, but he doesn’t really do it on a full-time basis. Now, Anthony and Tristan Thompson and some of these guys have been playing against American high-level competition from September to September. They’ve gotten used to it…”

Roy Rana, head coach of the Canadian under-18 national team, adds: “People started investigating. People started to get more motivated to figure it out. How do I get a kid in a major school? How can I help a young man get a Division One scholarship? I think it was really the result of some people deciding to take teams of young Canadians, mostly Toronto basketball players, into the United States and explore that system, and learn and grow from that system, and use it here.” For this system to work you need a relateable success story- Denham Brown- and a program who is willing to take a chance- UConn.

basketball.ca

basketball.ca

According to Canada Basketball, the country’s organizing body for the sport, participation rates among children in Canada have doubled since 2005, or, one year after Brown’s National Championship with UConn. Today, over 100 Canadians play NCAA Division One basketball, including the #7 overall player in the class of 2014, Kentucky’s Trey Lyles. Says Andrew Wiggins, “They really opened doors for younger people watching, for us to grow up and believe we can do the same they have done. Tristan, Cory, Denham Brown, Phil Dixon, Steve Nash, Jamaal Magloire, guys like that, they have really paved the way for young guys like me and even younger guys who are coming.”

Pioneer of the new movement

The recent retirement of Steve Nash has drawn many to credit the probable Hall-of-Famer with the resurrection of Canadian basketball. Not to take anything away from Mr. Nash but Denham Brown stakes just as much claim to that title. First, Nash was raised outside of Vancouver, roughly 2,100 miles (or 3,392 km) from the Greater Toronto Area where much of the talent has originated (Wiggins, Bennett, Joseph, Thompson among others). Second, Nash’s journey was a remarkably different story from many of the Greater Toronto Area hoopsters. Here is an excerpt from Brian Daly’s Canada’s Other Game: Basketball from Naismith to Nash, depicting Nash’s childhood.

“It was December of 1990, and the sun had just set behind the mountains overlooking picturesque Victoria, British Columbia, leaving only a single spotlight to illuminate a hoop in the schoolyard of Hillcrest Elementary School in the town of Saanich, a north end suburb of the B.C. capital. Large and medium-sized detached homes lay nestled among an eclectic array of trees and bushes in the Gordon Head neighbourhood, with well-kept gardens displayed year-round in Canada’s only snow-free capital region. Less than a kilometre away, waterside mansions and rugged shoreline gave way to the sparkling blue waters of the Haro Strait, a great whale-watching area separating southern Vancouver Island from adjacent islands off the west coast of Washington State.”

Nash grew up on soccer, hockey and rugby and worshipped the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. When Nash initially struggled in high school his parents were able to send him to St. Michaels, a private boarding school only 30 miles from the border of the United States.

Getty Images

Getty Images

On the opposite coast, Denham Brown was raised in the Lawrence Heights neighborhood of Toronto, home to the city’s first public housing project. When his high school closed following junior year, Brown transferred to a public school in the Eastern Toronto district of Scarborough or “Scarlem” as coined by the Canadian magazine Toronto Life. Years later, Minnesota Timerbwolves forward Anthony Bennett and his family would relocate to the nearby Jane and Finch neighborhood, a community known for one of the largest concentrations of criminal gangs in all of Canada. At the same time Andrew Wiggins, Cory Joseph and Tyler Ennis (Phoenix Suns via Syracuse) were all growing up in diverse neighborhoods surrounding Greater Toronto, worshipping then-star Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors. In an interview with USA Today, Canadian Nik Stauskas (Sacramento Kings via Michigan) comments: “There was Steve Nash, but he didn’t really have that path of going to prep school in America. We paved the way for the Canadians trying to make that move. There’s always a new guy coming up and let’s hope they take the same path.” Though Brown did not attend prep school in the United States, he put Toronto on the map, making it possible for Stauskas and others.

I could never downplay the impact Steve Nash has made on the perception of Canadian basketball but I am simply unconvinced a young Anthony Bennett relates to the story of Steve Nash more so than Denham Brown. Assuming Nash was the sole inspiration behind this new wave of Canadian basketball ignores important factors such as geography and privilege. Brown’s high school coach Marv Spencer puts it best at the end of the My North campaign video:

“He (Denham) laid the foundation for the American sports industry to understand that there is talent here. Wiggins and the young guys that are making it now, I admire them, I love what they are doing but we are talking about the pioneer of the whole new movement. Denham Brown is the pioneer of the new movement and when the young guys get a chance to see him, salute the King.”

Lasting impact 

According to slamonline.com, there are now close to 50 men and 20 women playing Division One basketball from the Greater Toronto Area. As a UConn fan, Denham Brown’s contribution to the 2004 National Championship team is remembered in points and rebounds but his contribution to his country is immeasureable. Ultimately, whether through Steve Nash or Denham Brown, the most important storyline is that Canadian players have finally gained the exposure they deserve and that is what matters most.

Tyler Olander dunks his way into BEKO-LKL Top 10 Plays (video)

bcsiauliai.lt

bcsiauliai.lt

It has definitely been an adjustment year for Tyler Olander, transitioning from a senior season which saw him struggle to find minutes to a professional league competing against seasoned veterans. Last month, Olander was loaned from Siauliai to fellow league member Mazeikiai in order to get the young lefty more playing time. Loans are common in European basketball, especially in situations where a player is signed to a long term deal- as Olander is. Olander will finish up the season with Mazeikiai but his rights remain with Siauliai and he will return to the club next season.

In his first three games with Mazeikiai, Olander has averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds in 14 minutes. His last game against #3 Lietuvos Rytas was by far his best, dropping 14 points to go along with 9 rebounds.

Speaking of adjustments, check out this mid-air adjustment by Olander in this week’s BEKO-LKL Top Ten plays.

BREAKING: Ray Allen will not play this season

@rayn34

@rayn34

In a statement released by his agent, ten-time NBA All-Star Ray Allen will not play during the 2014-15 NBA season but leaves the door open for 2015-16. As the picture above suggests, he sure seems to be enjoying his time off.

“Over the past several months, I have taken a lot of time to deliberate what is best for me,” Allen said. “I’ve ultimately decided that I will not play this NBA season. I’m going to take the remainder of this season, as well as the upcoming off-season, to reassess my situation, spend time with my family and determine if I will play in the 2015-16 season.”

Read the full release here.

Call it respect, call it a plea or call it both but even King James couldn’t sway Ray Ray this time…

 

State of the UConn

State of the UConn

 

President Herbst, AD Manuel, Coach Ollie and all those who bleed blue:

We are two years into this new conference. No longer a member of the most dominant conference in college basketball but rather, the American Athletic Conference. A conference reminiscent of the island of misfit toys in the Christmas classic Rudolph- the schools no conference wants to play with. Pittsburgh Big Monday rivalry games have been replaced with lazy Sunday’s in Houston. ESPN College GameDay is no longer with Syracuse, but SMU. And finally, after much research, I can officially confirm the win over Tulane will count towards our conference record, not exhibition.Yes, the outlook sure seems bleak at times and I am reminded by every AAC-Google-search-autocorrected-to-ACC of what could have been. But, does conference realignment alone mean Connecticut is no longer home to the college basketball capital of the world? Absolutely Not.

Tonight, we turn the page.  

This weekend’s blowout loss to SMU albeit disheartening was by no means disqualifying. As with any season, the ultimate goal is and still remains to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. From there, anything can happen. Now, we must shift our focus off this season’s frustrations and onto how we can position ourselves for continued postseason success. Success that will translate from year to year, keeping in mind our position in a new conference.

Schedule for an at-large, play for an automatic

March Madness can be achieved in one of two ways- an automatic bid (win the conference tournament) or an at-large bid (selected by NCAA committee based on performance). At-large bids are awarded based on a number of different criteria, none more prominent than the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). To summarize , you are rewarded for beating teams who beat good teams on a scale of 1(best)-351(worst). Click here to see how RPI is officially calculated. Although other rankings do exist that may be more accurate, RPI is primarily used by the NCAA selection committee. Similar to the SATs and college admission, if a strong RPI doesn’t get you in, it at least gets you looked at.

The eccentrically formed American Athletic Conference simply cannot compete with the strong numbers posted by powerhouse programs in the former Big East. Numbers that are highly scrutinized by the selection committee, and, will ultimately decide a team’s postseason fate. In contrast to the Big East, the AAC is more on par with a pair of mid-majors- the West Coast Conference (WCC) and Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). Here is a comparison of the percent of conference members in the top 50 of numerous statistics evaluated by the selection committee. As illustrated below, the level of competition found in the 2011 Big East is far superior to the 2014/15 AAC, WCC, and MVC.

Conference RPI SOS CFRPI CFSS
Big E. 2010/11 65% 80% 70% 95%
AAC 2014/15 35% 20% 25% 10%
WCC 2014/15 20% X 30% X
MVC 2014/15 20% 10% 20% X

*Ratings Percentage Index, Strength of Schedule, Conference RPI, Conference SOS*

Without the Big East to inflate our postseason resume, how can UConn ensure an at-large bid without winning the conference title? For that, we will take a look at mid-major college basketball powers Gonzaga (WCC) and Wichita State (MVC).

It begins with our non-conference strength of schedule.

Four years ago, we could rely on the strength of the Big East to float us into the tournament when we were on the bubble. The Big East Conference had the #1 overall RPI out of all D1 Conferences, including a ridiculous 10 teams in the top 50 (above). Given the ultra-competitiveness of the Big East, each week provided an opportunity to boost RPI, or, recover from a RPI-crushing loss. The last week of Big East conference play in 2011 saw UConn win at Cincinnati (31) then lose at West Virginia (16) and home to Notre Dame (12). On paper, yes that’s a 1-2 mark but when you take a deeper look at the numbers the road loss at West Virginia was essentially negated by the win over the Bearcats and UConn enters the conference tournament off a home loss to a tough Notre Dame squad. Definitely not an ideal stretch entering tournament play but also not bubble bursting due to the quality of our opponents.

After easily defeating DePaul (217), the Huskies faced Georgetown (6), Pittsburgh (7), Syracuse (17) and Louisville (18). Though we beat all four, my guess is we earned the at-large bid after the quarterfinal victory over Pitt. The Big East was supremely competitive but it also provided opportunity to control fate with your play. Glancing at the chart below, Big East members played on average 10 games against RPI top 1-25 teams in 2011. That is 10 opportunities to prove yourself against an elite team, 10 opportunities to demonstrate growth over the course of a season. Opportunities that simply do not exist in the AAC, WCC, and MVC.

Conference RPI 1-25 26-50 51-100 Total 1-100
Big East 2011 10 2 4 16
AAC 2014* 6 3 4 13
WCC 2014 3 3 5 11
MVC 2014 3 1 6 10

*Louisville removed for accuracy

For further comparison, let’s look at a recent stretch of UConn AAC play. Starting January 25th with a win over South Florida (215), UConn lost on the road to Cincinnati (29) followed by another road loss to Houston (239). This time, although the Cincinnati loss is not a “bad loss” in terms of RPI (and most importantly, in the eyes of the committee) Houston is inexplicable. Additionally, although we won our next two games, Eastern Carolina (242) and Tulane (182) combined hardly account for the Houston loss- especially when it allows Doug Gottlieb to do this:

In any case, the days of mourning the Big East are over. A new era is underway and we must not be shortsighted. How do we compensate for a lack of quality competition in conference play for years to come?

Schedule for an at-large…

To answer that question, let’s take a look at the resumes of both Wichita State and Gonzaga in relation to our Huskies. Also, note the 12/13 Wichita State and 11/12 Gonzaga profiles from years they did not win the conference tournament, but earned an at-large bid. These are the numbers that got them in the big dance.

Team RPI SOS NCSS CFSS
Gonzaga 14/15 8 90 15 172
Wichita 14/15 16 109 26 196
UConn 14/15 85 82 84 103
Wichita 12/13 38 102 63 129
Gonzaga 11/12 25 81 59 122

ESPN.com

UConn’s non-conference strength of schedule (NCSS) is particularly alarming considering a conference strength of schedule (CFSS) over 100. Aside from the obvious fact they are winning, both Wichita State and Gonzaga have a significantly stronger NCSS. To date, our best non-conference win comes over Dayton (32), hardly head-turning. We desperately need to schedule quality non-conference games, and lots of them. Even January’s win over Florida- though quality at the time- means nothing after the Gators recent struggles. Our schedule must be packed with talent to compensate for unexpected down years.We cannot afford to play in mediocre tournaments, we need to face off with the elite. Recent home-and-home series have been announced with Georgetown, Arizona and Ohio State along with planned participation in the 2016 Maui Invitational. This type of aggressive scheduling is necessary should we need any wiggle room in conference play due to poor performance or injury.

The consequence of failing to schedule for an at-large bid results in the one word so evil it can drop a slipper straight off a cinderella’s foot…

Snub

The Missouri Valley Conference has seen 5 RPI top 40 teams snubbed in recent years, including the most infamous snub of all time. In 2006 Missouri State’s bubble was popped after posting a 21 RPI- the best of any team ever left out of March Madness. In 1998, Gonzaga missed out on an at-large bid after losing in the WCC Finals- despite claiming the regular season crown and defeating #5 Clemson. Don’t think it can happen in the AAC? Just last year SMU posted a 23-9 record with a 53 RPI but was left out of the tournament following a first round loss in AAC play. Makes you feel a little better about this weekend…

…until you realize we are in the same conference…

…which brings me back to this year. Schedule for the at-large bid…

play for the automatic.

Maybe the American isn’t so bad after all. One HUGE advantage to playing in a weak conference? The conference tournament aka the automatic bid. Realistically, no matter how we struggle during the regular season, the AAC tournament could punch our ticket on a yearly basis. I like the idea of sealing our own fate as opposed to leaving it up to the NCAA (we are still the UConn of old in that regard).

LRPI measure’s a team’s RPI in road/neutral games only- a statistic we can use come tournament time (neutral sites). Here is a look at the average LRPI of each AAC member over the past 5 seasons.

Team LRPI Team LRPI
Cincinnati 29 UCF 112
Memphis 30 SMU 132
UConn 40 USF 163
Temple 71 Tulane 163
Tulsa 111 Houston/ECU 169

ESPN.com

As the numbers show and five games in five days proved, we are a tournament team like few others in the conference. Given our performance, there is still no combination of AAC teams I am scared of come March. Take last week’s match-up with Tulsa. We held the #1 team in conference (at the time) to 31% shooting in a 25 point blowout win. Ball movement was the best I’ve seen all year and the Huskies fed off the crowd’s energy.

Update: We get that crowd for the tournament.

Remember, Hartford hosts the AAC tournament this year. The average distance for AAC members to travel from their campus to the XL Center? 1,155 miles or 17.5 hours. That’s Hartford to St. Louis- ON AVERAGE! Aside from Temple (211 miles), the next closest school is Eastern Carolina (615 miles). As fans, we need to emphasize this advantage with a sea of blue and white. I saw what it did last year at Madison Square Garden and there’s no reason to think it cannot be recreated. Yes it is improbable, but hey, we feast on the improbable. We are after all, and will continue to be, the Hungry Huskies.

Undeniably, this is a new era for UConn basketball. Our struggles will be heavily documented and triumphs largely unnoticed. We no longer present ourselves along with the power of the Big East, but in a cloud of doubt cast upon by a weak conference. Gonzaga, currently sits at #3 in the AP poll with many calling the current squad best in school history. Yet in his column earlier this month, Yahoo Sports analyst Pat Forde still asked the question of “whether the WCC sufficiently seasons Mark Few’s program for NCAA play”. Regardless of our trophies, regardless of our NBA pedigree and regardless of our tradition, this same question will be asked about our Huskies.

But you know what, Houston, we don’t have a problem. Actually, we have an advantage. We are once again the underdog, problem is- we do just fine as the underdog.

Let’s continue this new era, and let’s start with this season.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless UConn Country.

USA Today

USA Today

Jeremy Lamb runs the handshake (pre)game

Jeremy Lamb’s hands have gotten some serious publicity of late… I just hope non-UConn fans realize this is not the most famous Lamb-shake (see below).

THE REAL LAMB SHAKE

Although my favorite pre-game handshake routine still belongs to Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith, seen here at the 3:25 mark of the 2011 Final Four intros…

UConn Basketball Social Media Week in Review: Valentine’s Day Edition

As it will lead us into Valentine’s day, this week’s UConn Basketball Social Media Week in Review is all about the love…

NBA

Just when you think no one cares…

Someone cares too much…

Westbrook should really show some of that love to Kemba…

or maybe James Ennis, not sure who needs it more…

Definitely not Ray though, he’s got em lined up.

UConn

Patriot fans mistakenly show love for Darius Butler…

Butler shows he loves to troll… (UConn football is funny off the field too?) 

Doug Gottlieb will never love UConn…

but UConn loves NOLA.

Recruits

Jalen Adams kisses his teammate off the backboard…

next year, it’s to this guy.

International

7’4 Boban Marjanovic did not expect this early gift from Marcus Williams (#9)…

the Germans still love Niels Giffey…

Jerome Dyson has always loved to score (@sliceanddice)…

…but most importantly, shows he can give too.