"The difference between one person and another, between the weak and the powerful, the great and the insignificant, is energy - invisible determination."
- Thomas Buxton
I know that quote by heart these days because it's always one that ends up on our pregame coaching board a few times a season.
For some reason this year, though, that invisible determination just goes missing from time to time. We've had less talented teams that have seemed to win games they shouldn't, but this year's team has lost a couple that should have been in the "W' column. We've knocked down enough shots to get by, and our talent has given us a winning record, but we wonder what we leave in the tank on a nightly basis sometimes.
We don't have KenPom or pythageoreans or log5formulas, but we have stats, and while you sometimes see things like lower steal or rebound numbers, that doesn't always tell the story that our eyes (I hate the "eye test", too, though, don't worry) and the videotape do.
Which brings me in a convoluted way back to the subject at hand, Wednesday night's NEC intrastate showdown between Quinnipiac and Central Connecticut. The Bobcats under Tom Moore are known for their defense, and it has led them to be one of the top teams in the NEC the last few seasons, painfully for them lacking an NCAA Tournament appearance to go with it.
I saw them in November harass and pester a pretty good Yale team into a 68-62 win. But soon after, it was gone. Quinnipiac was swept by Sacred Heart of all people, gave up 72 points to lowly Bryant at home, and nearly dropped to 2-6 in conference last month by pulling out an overtime win over those same Bulldogs. After another overtime win, this time at home, over a mediocre Mount St. Mary's team, Quinnipiac was set to take on Wagner two days later.
The Bobcats lost that day, 51-50, but just as mysteriously as their defensive intensity had disappeared, it returned. A very good Seahawks team was lucky to survive, and Quinnipiac has rolled since, winning two straight and getting back to .500 in the league.
Meanwhile, Central, picked among the preseason favorites in the NEC, has been the proverbial train headed in the other direction. Led by one of the best mid-major players in the nation, Ken Horton, CCSU nearly won at Northwestern and jumped to a 5-0 start in the NEC before bafflingly forgetting to play basketball apparently. A loss to Sacred Heart, a home loss to struggling Monmouth, and two others on the trot brought the Blue Devils on the 30-minute ride to Hamden just hoping to get into the NEC Tournament.
You probably already predicted what was going to happen here. Central got a bucket to tie the game at two a minute in, then didn't score for six minutes as Quinnipiac raced to a 15-2 lead before I even sat down. It was 26-7 before the Blue Devils decided to play a little, they actually got it to single digits early in the second half before getting humiliated the rest of the way in a 72-44 loss that would have been absolutely shocking had it been played two months ago.
And all the efficiency and pythagorean ratings in the world can't explain why Quinnipiac's defense was so smothering Wednesday and downright poor a month ago. It can't explain the little things.
Things like this: CCSU is threatening to get back into the game (kind of), 28-17, late in the first half. James Johnson buried a contested three-pointer and gets fouled to boot. OK, these things happen. But after he missed the free throw, he somehow gets his own rebound, the Bobcats get a third chance, and Alex Jackson falls to the ground and gets called for traveling.
A tough break, but what struck me is that as Jackson went to the ground and the whistle blew, the other four Quinnipiac players raced to pick him up and pat him on the back. The Central players walked back up the court with their collective heads down.
That was the most glaring example, but the body language told you all night who was going to win.
And it always seems like teams down on their luck never get the breaks. With the score 42-31 early in the second half and Central's zone at least having a minimal effect against a generally poor shooting squad (yeah, go ahead and look it up on KenPom, it still has its value, people), James Johnson threw an alley-oop pass in the general direction of Ike Azotem, but it somehow missed its target and ended up...in the basket for a three-pointer.
A local high school coach used to start every postgame interview with, "talent is the divider", and that's true, certainly neither of these teams is winning the NCAA Tournament, no matter how hot they are or how together they play.
But for my money, and having seen these teams a few times now, it's a pretty even matchup. And it wasn't even close on this night.
Central coach Howie Dickenman -- it ain't his first rodeo -- tried. He benched Horton in the first few minutes of the game. He yelled. He stayed calm. He was the good cop. He was the bad cop. He went man-to-man. He went zone. He went junk defense (1-3-1). He even called a time out early in the second half just to sub out senior Robby Ptacek, who had taken a couple of bad shots in a row.
It didn't matter.
I'm not someone that decries technology. It's a beautiful thing. It's the reason you're reading this right now.
But it will never be able to chart energy -- invisible determination -- that makes some teams great and some insignificant, with some teams taking up both mantles at different points in the same season.
I know we're not supposed to quote coaches, but driving home (and the game ended at 8:34 and I was on my couch by 8:47 for a 7 p.m. tip-off. Is that a Mid-Majority record? I almost feel guilty that this game was too easy or something) I turned on the Quinnipiac radio postgame to hear assistant coach Eric Eaton say, "It's been a joy watching these guys from where they were then to where they are now. I hope they understand how far they've come, and it was all about picking up the intensity on defense. That's all it was. Everything builds off that."
Cynic alert: But if it was that easy, why weren't they doing it a month ago?
And so we're left with the question that all coaches ask: how do I get our maximum effort every night? How do we play more consistently?
I'll be damned if I know. Any ideas for me or Howie Dickenman (or Tom Moore for that matter)? Central turns around and hosts this same Quinnipiac team on Sunday.
at QUINNIPIAC 72, CENTRAL CONNECTICUT 44 02/08/2012
CENTRAL CONNECTICUT 10-13 (7-6) -- M. Douglas 3-12 9-9 15; R. Ptacek 3-9 3-3 10; K. Horton 4-11 2-2 11; K. Vinales 2-11 4-4 8; M. McMillan 1-2 0-0 2; A. Burbage 1-5 0-0 3; D. Simmons 1-4 0-0 2; T. Allen 1-2 2-3 4; D. Speech 1-4 0-0 2; S. Mickell 1-5 0-0 2; J. Efese 0-2 0-0 0; M. LaPorte 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 15-56 11-12 44. QUINNIPIAC 14-10 (7-6) -- D. Johnson 2-9 3-4 7; J. Johnson 5-13 0-1 14; I. Azotam 8-10 1-2 17; O. Drame 4-7 3-4 11; G. Young 1-2 0-0 2; Z. Hearst 3-8 1-1 8; J. Jackson 4-7 1-1 9; A. Jackson 0-0 2-4 2; E. Conti 0-1 0-0 0; N. Gause 0-0 0-0 0; J. Harris 0-1 0-0 0; T. Bobb-Jones 1-1 0-0 2; K. Tarca 0-1 0-0 0; T. Wood-Smith 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-60 11-17 72.
Three-point goals: CCT 3-14 (K. Horton 1-4; R. Ptacek 1-4; M. LaPorte 0-1; D. Speech 0-1; A. Burbage 1-2; K. Vinales 0-1; M. McMillan 0-1), QUIN 5-12 (D. Johnson 0-1; J. Johnson 4-7; K. Tarca 0-1; Z. Hearst 1-3); Rebounds: CCT 28 (R. Ptacek 9), QUIN 45 (I. Azotam 8); Assists: CCT 7 (K. Vinales 3), QUIN 15 (D. Johnson 6); Total Fouls -- CCT 16, QUIN 13; Fouled Out: CCT-None; QUIN-None.