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Southern California -- A Psych Experiment in Progress

Publication Date: March 27, 2001

Perception Becomes Reality?

I usually don't write columns focusing in on one particular team; in fact, I think this is the first one. Partly that's because they strike me as a fairly lazy form of journalism -- write one paragraph about the program's history, one paragraph about the current season including overemphasis on one particular weekend's results, and one paragraph about the coach's experience level and, oh, yeah, he likes pasta, and you're done. Throw in a quote or two from the coach to show you're a knowledgeable insider, and you're really done.

Partly, of course, it's because I have my own form of laziness, and writing those columns would require me to get off my butt and go get those insider quotes, or at least shift my butt over by the phone. Partly it's because that's not what I do; I'm more of a 5000-foot view guy, and I'm not interested in shifting my niche all that much.

This week, though, I want to take a look at Southern California and the coverage of their season so far, because I think there's a fascinating psychology experiment being played out this season, and I'm curious about how it will turn out. One of the major themes I've noticed in the limited amount of national college baseball coverage lately is questioning what's wrong with the Trojans. I don't think much of anything is, but I'm curious about what will happen due to the perception that something is.

What's Wrong?

USC, of course, was a deserving participant in last year's College World Series, finishing fourth in the ISR's for the year with a Division I record of 44-20. Note that they had, by quite a bit, the lowest winning percentage of any team in the top five last year; South Carolina, Stanford, LSU, and Florida State all had at least fifty wins. There's a bit of foreshadowing there.

This year, they're 20-10 against Division I teams (they had one game against Cal-Riverside, who isn't counted here for reasons that will be the subject of a future column). Note that that's a .667 winning percentage, compared to last year's .688. However, that's essentially a difference of less than a whole game (21-9 would be .700), so I doubt the difference is statistically significant. Last year's team, after thirty games, was 21-9.

This year, though, Baseball America is running columns wondering how the Trojans could be in such dire straits, including doom-and-gloom quotes from USC Coach Mike Gillespie on how the team has been horribly inconsistent. The moral on that last part is probably to never ask a coach how it's going the day after a doubleheader loss, but general perception seems to be that the team is struggling.

They're out of the top ten in two polls and #10 in the third, and, if they had fans, they'd probably be grumbling. (USC has the unusual situation of having a program that's well-supported by the university -- good facilities and a top-notch coach -- that routinely draws fewer than 1000 for games between top-ten teams. Nothing wrong with that; folks in Los Angeles just have other things to do.)


The problem, as far as I can tell, is that the consequences of the fact that Southern Cal routinely plays the toughest schedule in the country seem to be being ignored this year for some reason. They're currently at #2 in the ISR's, quite reasonably, as the losses are to the #1 (Stanford), #5 (Cal State Fullerton), #6 (UCLA), #10 (Long Beach State), #11 (Pepperdine), #16 (Washington), and #89 (Loyola Marymount) teams in the current ISR's, and only the loss to Loyola Marymount is worth even a raised eyebrow. They won the series against UCLA and Long Beach, split with Fullerton, and took one from Washington.

In short, nothing's wrong except the coverage, but I want to see if it develops into a problem. Obviously, there's a confidence aspect to any sporting endeavor. It's unmeasurable, and it's largely overrated by being used as an explanation after the fact for random events, but it does exist, and it gives us the chance here to see how much impact press coverage can have.

Last year's USC team got mostly positive coverage and went on to an excellent if imperfect final result. We'll see if this year's team has problems on the field due to confidence problems. We'll also see if the perception problem costs them elsewhere; if they don't win the Pac-10 title, you know the selection committee would love to seed them as a 1A and match them up with Stanford in the super-regionals again, thereby keeping one of them from having a shot at Omaha. I know that one case can't prove a theory either way, but this one bears watching.

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