"Rants and Raves" is an open forum for coaches to discuss topics, ranging from issues to observations on the state of college basketball and beyond.
The Thin Red Line
By Bruiser Flint, Drexel

There is such a fine line between winning and losing. And there is a thin red line that divides many teams into two groups, one that gets invited to the postseason and one that doesn’t crack the .500 mark.

Ultimately, being a part of March Madness or just being plain mad comes down to a handful of possessions.

College basketball is not all that different from the National Football League, in regards to the talent level. Every team has talented players. Of course there are always one or two teams that may have a little more talent then the rest of the conference, but more often than not there is not a tremendous difference in the level of talent.

Take a look at the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. Last season they finished with the worst record in football. Sports Illustrated ranked them dead last in the entire NFL, heading into this season. Now the Chargers are headed to the playoffs. So how could a team go from being so bad to being so good in one year?

San Diego head coach Brad Holland, who is a longtime fan, will tell you that last year’s team was very competitive. They played well through the first three quarters, but failed to execute in the fourth quarter.

Of course it helps that Antonio Gates has emerged as a premier tight end and the defense has had more success with the 3-4 scheme, but the biggest difference has been their play in the final quarter.

If you follow the NFL very closely you will know that there isn’t much difference between the 2004 San Diego Chargers and the 2004 Cleveland Browns. Both have talent, but one team has played a much better brand of football in the fourth quarter.

There are other factors involved, but if you ask Brad Holland he will tell you that a play here or a play there and the Chargers might have been eliminated from the playoff hunt weeks ago. Instead, they are AFC West Champions.

That same thing exists in the world of College Basketball.

Whether you are playing your basketball in the ACC or the CAA the fact of the matter is that it’s just a handful of possessions that ultimately determines whether you win 20 games or fail to win 15. At every level it’s a thin line, but at the mid-major level it’s walking on thin ice.

Unlike the power conferences, which get multiple teams into postseason, mid-major conference only get two or three -- if they are lucky -- into the NCAA and NIT. To say that margin of error is even less at the mid-major level is an understatement. That handful of possessions determine a coach’s longevity.

If you look around the country you are sure to find a number of teams that are doing much better than they have in recent history. Now ask the coach what the biggest difference is?

The answers may vary slightly, but the message will be the same -- “We are making plays in crunch time.”

In most cases the personnel hasn’t changed dramatically from a season ago, but what has changed is how that personnel is performing when it matters most.

Recently, Rutgers head coach Gary Waters wrote -- on his website -- about how a team has to learn how to win. At first glance a lot of people might think that is just nonsense, but it’s so true.

Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg addressed the same issue on his website. He wrote that he and his staff are trying to educate their players on what it takes to win.

And Rider coach Donny Harnum just wrote -- on his website -- about how his team is 4-4, but could easily be 6-2, had they made plays down the stretch.

It’s not a coincidence that three coaches are addressing the same topic. It’s a fact of life in the world of College Basketball. Gary, Seth and Donny will all tell you that talent alone will win you a game, but knowing “how to win” will produce wins on a more frequent basis.

And Arizona head coach Lute Olson took it a step further, when he touched on the subject on his website. As he pointed out, the talking heads point to the play in the final moments, but in a one or two-possession game it’s often a missed opportunity in the first half that decides the outcome.

Fans constantly hear all of us say, “We need to play hard and play smart for forty minutes.” And you often hear, “One possession at a time.” That’s not simply coach-speak. It’s gospel.

Throughout the course of any season you are going to have games that are simply total disasters. Some nights you can’t hit the broad side of a barn and some nights the effort, for a variety of reasons, just isn’t there. That’s a fact that every coach in America understands all too well.

Likewise, you will have nights when the opposition runs into the same problems and you win going away. Let’s assume that you play in about eight of these games a year. Now you are 4-4 with about 20 closely contested games left. Splitting these games will leave you short of 15 wins, which will not get you into the postseason. You can’t afford to be .500. You have to win 14 or 15 of these contests. If you do, you’ll find your team hovering near the 20-win plateau with a shot at postseason.

One shot here, one defensive stop there. That’s the difference. It might seem like a big thing, but any coach will tell you that it truly is a thin red line.