OMAHA, Neb. — College basketball people would censor this column if they could. They’d change the key word here to c*@^%, and that’s only if they couldn’t convince me to skip this idea altogether.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
They’d say this is a big mistake I’m making, writing about the dirtiest word in the sport, that I should be careful, that livelihoods are at stake.
Because nobody in that business wants to talk, read or even think about choking.
“That’s a messed up word,” Missouri senior Steve Moore says.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a fair statement in the tournament at all,” Kansas junior Jeff Withey says.
But it’s on everyone’s minds, right? This is the side of March Madness — the greatest event in sports — that makes players and coaches supremely uneasy. This is the dream turning to nightmare, the success going flop, the chance of a lifetime forever becoming one of the worst feelings of a lifetime.
Kansas and Missouri are each No. 2 seeds, with players who’ve spent this week talking about opportunity and possibility. Left mostly unspoken is the potential for one of the low moments of their programs’ histories, which brings up the uncomfortable but relevant question:
What, exactly, constitutes a choke?
“That’s a really, really good question,” says KU senior Conner Teahan, who was on the 2008 championship team and the 2010 team that lost to Northern Iowa.
This column was going to be loaded with players and coaches, current and former, offering their definition of choke. But a funny thing happens when you ask most of them about it: you might as well quiz them about UFOs.
It seems the first rule of choking is that you do not talk about choking.
“I wouldn’t put that label on anybody,” says Mizzou’s Laurence Bowers.
“I don’t necessarily agree with that label,” says Greg Gurley, whose KU career included a Final Four and a loss to UTEP in the round of 32.
What’s interesting is if you listen closely, many of these guys describe the exact symptoms of what the rest of us diagnose as a choke. They just won’t use the word.
Gurley, for instance, talks about nerves and butterflies and playing tighter. Moore says the one-and-done structure is in the back of players’ minds. Withey says it’s harder to play when the president picks you to win it all, like last year. Bowers says there are certain ways of losing that make it harder to deal with.
There is a science to this, you know. Sports psychologists will tell you an athlete actually chokes long before the big moment. The failure — what makes the meaner fans put their hands around their necks — is in preparation. The only way to succeed when the moment finds you is to be able to honestly feel you’ve prepared for it.
Take this insight and apply it to some of the things you hear from the KU locker room. Elijah Johnson talks openly of needing to remember Detroit can send him home in tears. Teahan talks about last year’s team “(thinking) we already made it to the Final Four” before the VCU game.
Doesn’t all of that sound an awful lot like failing to prepare?
And didn’t KU’s two-for-21 three-point shooting, 15-of-28 free-throw shooting, and eight turnovers by Markieff Morris look an awful lot like a choke?
Some Mizzou fans will laugh at that memory, but this is also true: a program that’s never been to a Final Four and only three previous times has been seeded as high as No. 2 hasn’t had as many opportunities to choke.
So in that way, this is new for Mizzou.
Defining a choke is more complicated than comparing seeds. Generally speaking, talent is evenly distributed throughout college basketball, so the best teams aren’t quite as good and the worst teams aren’t quite as bad.
Kansas didn’t choke against VCU because it was a No. 1 seed losing to a No. 11 seed; it choked because of short-armed jumpers and white-knuckled mistakes that hadn’t occurred all year.
If we cared only about seeding, Mizzou’s loss to UCLA in the 1995 tournament would never be considered a choke; but it often is, because the Tigers blew a nine-point lead and let Tyus Edney go the length of the court in 4.8 seconds for the game-winner.
There are lessons here for both KU and MU beyond the absurd notion by some that anything short of a Final Four is a choke.
The lesson is in preparation, specifically an honest and humble approach that acknowledges — like Johnson talked about — the possibility that they might soon be crying over a loss.
“Forty minutes from spring break,” is how MU senior Kim English put it.
“Forty minutes from shame,” is the cruel reality of it.
Nobody roots for this punishing side of the wonderful NCAA Tournament. But this is the deal we make with ourselves, isn’t it? There are no heroes without villains, no winners without losers, no great successes without great failures.
With everything that’s happened in this wild year, Kansas and Missouri have an extra layer of pride riding on the outcome of this tournament. KU blew a lead in Columbia but won the regular-season conference title. MU blew a lead in Lawrence but won the league tournament.
If there’s a choke in this tournament, some will see that as the tiebreaker, and if this seems like a harsh thing to bring up as the games begin, just remember: the best way to avoid a choke is to prepare for it.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com