On Scraping By And The Close-Game Science

In the NCAA men's basketball tournament Saturday, Marquette escaped with a 2-point win over Butler. What does it take to win a close game? Grit and determination? Luck? Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Mike Pesca, who was at the game.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Another game last night was third-seeded Marquette versus sixth seed Butler in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a close one to be sure. Marquette escaped with a two-point win, which got us thinking: what does it take to win a close game? Grit and determination, luck, happenstance? NPR's Mike Pesca was at last night's game. He joins us now and probably has some thoughts on this. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah, if I don't it's going to be a short talk, right?

MARTIN: It would indeed. OK. So, what is it about teams like Marquette? Any theories? I bet you have one.

PESCA: Yeah, I do. Those virtues that you've listed, we all say, well, that's what a winner needs to have. But you know what? If you want to predict how well a team will do in a tournament or just overall, look at the margin of victory. And teams that crush their opponents are actually better than teams that just win by a point or two here or there. This came up in seeding the tournament this year. University of Florida had seven very close losses. And the experts, some of the Florida detractors, said, well, that's not very good. They can't win close games. And I think Florida defenders would say, actually, it means they're in every game. That correlates to success down the line. And when teams win by just a little bit and then they go on to lose, we say, well, maybe they weren't really great. But when teams keep winning by just a little bit, we say, oh, they have it in them to win and win and win by a tiny amount.

I asked Brad Stevens, the coach of Butler, this very question; the nature of close wins and close losses. Because Butler made two championship games, and he would always say during that ride, guys, you got to realize, I mean, I'm being called a genius, but for a bounce of the ball here or there, we wouldn't be here. And it's just so stark how this is the opposite side of that coin. And there he was sitting and now he's a loser in the tournament, and I don't know if people are going to believe that but for a bounce of a ball he would be advancing. But it really is the case.

MARTIN: But are you saying there's nothing to this whole idea that really good teams kind of need some pressure to perform?

PESCA: I think really good teams, there are a lot of things that help them and there are a lot of things that make them really good teams. And one of the things is the ability to come through under pressure. The Marquette team came through under pressure twice. And I do think in the game before when they beat Davidson down the stretch, a part of that was that the Davidson team crumbled. So, you have to be able to hold it together. That is true. But overall, if you crush opponents, if you were like Kentucky last year, that is better I think and that shows me that you're a better team than if you're an eker, a team that just wins here and there. Because the eker is vulnerable to the loss. And in fact, if you show me a number of really close losses and I don't see some sort of wilting, like I did with Davidson, quite frankly, I'm going to say, ooh, you're walking the razor's edge. You really should be able to put opponents away if we want to call you a great team.

MARTIN: But you realize the ekers are better entertainment, but, you know, I digress.

PESCA: Yes, I know. Ekers are great for ratings. And that's why I like the Wichita State Eekers.

MARTIN: What's your curveball this week?

PESCA: One of the good things I like about the tournament, I just love college coaches. They normally have great personalities, 'cause they have to recruit and they're extroverts. And sometimes they blow up sports cliches. It is a nice little benefit they offer. This is La Salle coach John Giannini in a press conference. And here is one of those cliches I hate: when a team who wasn't supposed to win, wins - you'll hear what the questioner says.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're playing with some house money?

JOHN GIANNINI: No, we're not playing with house money. That's not at all the way we would ever think. No. We want to win every game we play. We never think, OK, we don't have to win that game. That would be a ridiculous way for any coach or player to think.

PESCA: Coach Giannini has a doctorate in sports psychology, by the way. He's Dr. Giannini. I think he gave you some good insight as to how winners think.

MARTIN: He was not amused. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

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