Last Thursday on Kentucky Sports Radio a guy called in to debate the merits of experience as it pertains to success in the NCAA tournament. Specifically he referred to Villanova and their experience as a Final Four and Championship team making them potentially one of the toughest teams in the tournament this year. Matt responded that talent trumps experience and the conversation continued but the caller would not be dissuaded. Forget for a minute that UK won in 2012 on the backs of freshmen, or the 2014 Final Four run against experienced Final Four teams with freshmen, or the Duke championship in 2015 with…freshmen. It’s also worth noting that of the past ten NCAA Champions, only six (Florida ‘o7, UNC ’09, UConn ’11, UK ’12, Louisville ’13 UConn ’14) had been to a Final Four in the three years previous to winning the championship meaning that those seniors were presumably on the roster for the previous trip. Of the six teams listed above four were definitely the best teams during the year (Florida, UNC, UK, UL) which means that only two of the last ten champions can really cite their experience as a potentially major factor, and they both happen to be UConn.
A lot of people like to reference experience as a primary factor for a team’s success, but I think experience often gets confused with a far greater power…chemistry. Yes, the intangible which eludes definition when it comes to sports. What makes up chemistry? How do you quantify it? The easiest answer is “you know it when you see it” and aside from sports the most prevalent venue for chemistry is pop culture. Tv shows, movies, music, and just about any other form of pop culture features some sort of collaboration which can be hurt or boosted by chemistry. On-screen chemistry can make or break a tv show. You can have the best ensemble cast ever brought together, but if all the pieces don’t work well together then the product will suffer. Remember the movie All the King’s Men with Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfino, and Jude Law? Of course not because it sucked despite having so many highly touted actors. On the other hand, think about some of the best tv shows and movies: Seinfeld, Friends, The Godfather, Jaws, and others where everything just clicks and you end up with lightning in a bottle.
There are many factors which influence chemistry. For movies and tv shows writing, directing, and acting are the primary drivers of how the product will turn out. Take Breaking Bad as an example of what happens when everything comes together and it all just feels right. With the exception of an occasional one-off episode, Breaking Bad consistently brought together great writing, great directing, and great acting. As a result that show hit another level of television excellence. They not only nailed the chemistry in the show (talking about meth here) but they nailed the chemistry in the execution of the show.
Now one of the misconceptions of chemistry is that it means the participants have to like each other and they have to be best friends. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have a famously friendly relationship which they developed through Breaking Bad and that relationship certainly helped their performance. There are also plenty of examples of people who weren’t best friends but still had great chemistry. Two such examples are Adam Savage and Jaime Hyneman from Mythbusters.
For anyone who has watched Mythbusters, you know that these two are very different people. Despite their differences, they were able to blend their personalities into one of the most popular science-based shows of all time. How many other science shows can claim to have been voices on The Simpsons, had the President do a segment on their show, and have had a travelling museum exhibit? Despite the fact that they spent thirteen years together on the show, both Savage and Hyneman admit they don’t spend time together outside of work. This doesn’t mean they don’t like each other, but they aren’t best friends and that did not negatively affect their on-screen chemistry.
These same principles can be applied to sports. We’ve had teams at UK that had famously great relationships such as the 2014-15 N64 team. There have also been teams which were rumored to have off-court like the 2013-14 Julius Randle and Harrison twins team. Both of those teams made it to Final Fours despite lack of experience because on the court they had good chemistry, especially when the tweak went into effect.
Unlike actual science, there isn’t a way to measure this type of chemistry. As someone who typically likes to analyze numbers and data I often struggle buying into things that defy quantification. One thing I do believe based on data is that there is not a discernible advantage to experience, at least when it comes to college basketball where teams are routinely turned over and no core group is ever together more than four years. Chemistry is one of those things that sometimes you just have it. Like Tom and Hanks and Meg Ryan or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, when it shows up you just know it. Chemistry can help transfer mostly average talent into great talent (like Friends). When you add good chemistry to great talent you can get something special (Seinfeld, Breaking Bad). We know that UK has great talent, let’s see if they can develop the chemistry to make them special.