Narratives can be fickle entities, especially in sports.
One week, one game, heck, even one play can completely flip the script on how a program or coach is viewed. There are numerous examples of such upheaval.
During the 2014-2015 season, Leicester City spent half of the Premier League season in the relegation zone — threatening their status as a top-tier English soccer club. Having barely escaped the clutches of relegation to live another year, the “Foxes” defied all odds and won the Premier League title the following season. Both the 2004 curse-breaking Boston Red Sox and the 2013 iteration fall under this category. The 2007-08 Boston Celtics went from 24-58 the previous season to 66-16 and NBA champions. And no, I’m not just a Boston sports fan.
College basketball, with all its personnel movement and unpredictability, might provide the purest examples of quick and unexpected turnarounds. Ever heard of the University of Virginia? Coach Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers went from the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament to winning the national championship 12 months later in 2019.
All that is to say that narratives can change with the snap of a finger. What was once viewed as a questionable coaching hire could all-of-a-sudden spark a new trend. Situations evolve quickly and we’re even more quick to react to them. Collectively, as consumers of all things sports-related, we do a poor job of looking at month-long and year-long manifestations in their entirety.
Just five months ago, many pundits picked UCLA to win the Pac-12. The Bruins then lost preseason Pac-12 first-team guard Chris Smith to a torn ACL in early January and finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak. A 12-2 regular-season record quickly morphed into 13-6, a loss in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament and a play-in game with fellow No. 11 Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans were favored.
“We had a four-game losing streak at the end of the regular season, but in our minds, those were four games we could’ve easily won,” UCLA guard Jules Bernard told reporters on Monday. “There were certain mistakes in the games that put us behind the ball and allowed us to lose those games. We learned from those experiences, from those losses and we took what we learned from watching film and going over it in practice and applying it to this tournament.”
Added second-year coach Mick Cronin: “The buy-in’s been great. What people want to say is ‘Oh, (the players) finally bought in when you win a game.’ They’ve been great all along but training takes time. It takes time to build habits — and all kinds of habits, not just basketball habits. … Talking on defense, building toughness.”
Now, Cronin — who was hired after a lengthy and widely ridiculed coaching search — has UCLA back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008.
Standing in between Cronin and a trip to the Final Four is another second-year coach in Michigan’s Juwan Howard. A prodigal son of the Fab Five, Howard returned to Ann Arbor without head coaching experience and now finds himself on the precipice of the Final Four. Coming into the season, few thought the Wolverines would be in this position.
“I think we’re doing a really good job not really focusing on what the media has to say because I don’t think we really care,” Michigan freshman center Hunter Dickinson told reporters on March 14. “If we would’ve cared what the media said at the beginning of the season, we would’ve been in sixth place in the Big Ten and not ranked in the top-five.”
From a national expectation standpoint, Michigan has been through the ringer this season. The Wolverines went from lukewarm preseason expectations to a seven-game win streak and Big Ten regular season title in early-March, to dropping three of five games entering the NCAA Tournament and losing senior wing Isaiah Livers to an injury. Michigan limped into the Big Dance and as a result was widely regarded as the one-seed least likely to make it out of its region — let alone the first weekend.
Now, having outlasted LSU in the Round of 32 and blitzed a potential matchup nightmare in Florida State on Sunday night, the Wolverines have seemingly won back their former plaudits. Michigan enters tomorrow night’s contest as a 7.5-point favorite. How quickly perceptions evolve.
Predicting results and setting spreads are par for the course but basing them off seeds is a fool-hardy endeavour. If the NCAA Tournament — or sports in general — has taught us anything, it’s to embrace variability. This year’s Sweet Sixteen featured the highest seed average ever at 5.88. Seeds are irrelevant at this stage. And so, evaluating the Wolverines and Bruins on any other criteria than their current form and how the two teams match up makes no sense.
“Our defense is why we’re alive, and our defense is why we will survive,” Cronin said. “We got multiple guys that can shoot the ball. We share it and the guys believe, they’re aggressive, they’re not afraid to pull the trigger, and that’s how I want them on the offensive end. The question is, with Michigan’s efficiency, their talent and their play-calling, will we be able to continue to defend the way we’ve defended lately?”
It’s not an eleven against a No. 1, it’s UCLA against Michigan. I’m not predicting a win for the Bruins, but I am telling you they shouldn’t be dismissed as an underdog.
“When signing or committing to UCLA, we come here because of the winning history and the winning culture,” Bernard said. “We come here to win — and not just win games, but we come here to win titles.”
Whether it’s Cronin, Howard, Bernard or Dickinson, those on the inside could care less about preseason hype, underdog stories or seeds. So maybe we shouldn’t read too much into certain narratives either. They’re all just noise and they change constantly.
“I think we just have to go into the game focused on the opponent ahead of us,” Bernard said. “Whether they’re a lower seed than us or a higher seed, we’re going to play as a team the same way we’ve been playing throughout the tournament.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of history behind both teams but, at the end of the day, it’s two teams on one court and whoever plays better wins. We’re just going into this not focused on all that stuff, just focused on what we need to do to win and playing hard, playing with passion, playing with heart and let the results fall where they may.”