Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall has become something of a numerologist, and not because he’s a math savant.
Louisville’s Rick Pitino has grown a beard, and not because it looks good.
They are college basketball coaches, and they are looking for any mental edge they can find. Any bonding agent, any focus enhancer, any pressure alleviator.
It’s what the smart and creative ones do at this time of year, in the dog days of late February, when a basketball season can seem like an eternity.
This one began earlier than the season ever has, with rule changes allowing practice to start in late September. Now, the fun trips to exotic holiday tournament locales are long gone. There was no Christmas break to speak of, maybe a couple days with the family and then back for several lonely weeks on a deserted campus while the regular students were home. The winter has been brutal, the conference travel full of complications. By now, team camaraderie may be giving way to contempt. Plenty of guys are playing hurt.
Five months after practice began, the grind continues without relent. The Promised Land of postseason basketball is up ahead, plainly visible yet still unreachable.
So how does a coach handle this time of year? How does he avoid player burnout? How does he keep a team fresh, happy and motivated? And for teams feeling the weight of great expectations or NCAA tournament bubble pressure, how does a coach keep his team from stressing out?
The approaches are as varied as the personalities of the men in charge.
For Marshall and his 30-0 Shockers, the challenge is to simultaneously accept and enjoy unparalleled national attention while keeping it at arm’s length. Meeting with team "character coach" Steve Dickey before the season, his players distilled their goals to a single trigger word that would help them get the most out of themselves. Marshall joined in the exercise, and decided on "appreciate" as his trigger.
"My goal is to appreciate the here and now," he said. "… We wanted to appreciate every day, because I’m blessed to be able to coach wonderful young men and have a healthy and happy family. … And to be 30-0 is unbelievable."
Thirty-and-oh could carry with it an unbelievable burden, if the Shockers allowed it. But Marshall’s late-season brainstorm to shrink the pressure of going undefeated was to have a numerical theme for every contest. It became less about the totality of the record and more about the specificity of that particular night’s challenge.
When Wichita State was going for 23-0 against Evansville, it became the Michael Jordan Game. That was the jersey number of the greatest player of all-time – a natural choice.
Game No. 24 was at Indiana State. It became the Marshawn Lynch Beastmode Game. Lynch was fresh off a Super Bowl in which the media-shy running back let his play do the talking.
Game No. 25, at Northern Iowa, was the Richard Sherman Game. Because if anyone lived up to the Shockers’ "Play Angry" credo, it was Sherman.
Game No. 26, against Southern Illinois, was the Marathon Game. Twenty-six miles in a marathon, and that was certainly easy to identify with in mid-February.
Game No. 27, at Evansville, was the Fist Game. Marshall’s research told him there are 27 bones in a hand, and as he explained on SportsCenter, "My son (Kellen) used to hold his 5 fingers apart, then clench his first together to show that it is strong. That's what we want our players to do. Five apart is weak. Five together is strong.”
Game No. 28, at Loyola Chicago, was the Adrian Peterson Game. The Minnesota Vikings running back’s nickname is “All Day,” for his ability to bring it all game, every game.
For Game No. 29, at home against Drake, Marshall localized his approach. That was the B-29 Super Fortress Game, in honor of the war planes that were made – on tight deadline and in harsh conditions – in Wichita to help the United States win World War II.
Tuesday was Game No. 30, at Bradley, the final road test. That one was simple, and not number-dependent: make history. No team in college basketball history had ever gone 30-0 in the regular season.
And now, thanks to the Marshall Plan, the Shockers have done it. With a single game remaining – Senior Day at home against Missouri State – they are free at last to look at the big picture.
"Everyone’s talking about an undefeated season in January and I’m going, ‘I don’t even want to think about that,’ “ Marshall said. "Since Tuesday night, we have talked about 31. We said, ‘OK, now, we can talk about 31-0, undefeated regular season.’ "
The theme game has taken on a life of its own, but Marshall isn’t saying what it will be Saturday. That’s been a postgame revelation, not a pregame one.
Pitino’s team has dealt with a weight of its own, trying to repeat as national champions and going for a Final Four threepeat. Neither objective appeared realistic as the calendar flipped to February. Louisville had losses to North Carolina, Kentucky, Memphis and Cincinnati, with not much in the way of quality victories; and the dismissal of power forward Chane Behanan seemingly left the Cardinals with irreparable limitations on the interior.
But when an eight-day February layoff unexpectedly turned into nine days with a snow postponement of Louisville’s game at Temple, the team took a pledge: no shaving until they lose. And that included everyone affiliated with the basketball program – managers, trainers, media-relations director Kenny Klein, radio play-by-play voice Paul Rogers … and Rick Pitino himself.
Two weeks later, with a February-long winning streak still intact, this is a grizzled bunch. Pitino joked Wednesday that assistant coach Wyking Jones was being hazed by team captain Luke Hancock for trimming his beard down to something less than full.
“We’re going to be all-in or all-out,” Pitino quoted Hancock as saying. “Check your ego at the door.”
Pitino’s gray beard was not exactly a thing of beauty, so in a concession to vanity he had it colored this week. But the coach who was a bit imperious in his 30s and 40s is finding uncharacteristic ways to relate to his players in his 60s.
Last year it was the promise of a tattoo if Louisville won the national title – that was a hugely entertaining premise to the Cardinals. Pitino followed through on that. Now, bearded for the first time in his life, he’s once again one of the guys.
"The beard thing is for fun," Pitino said. "… We’re having a great time. But I think winning does that. Your team is close when you win, and when you lose they’re far apart. I haven’t seen too many close teams with seven wins."
Winning is indeed the ultimate bonding agent. But it also helps to have a coach who can find creative ways to reach his players in the dog days of an endless season.