Wish projection in sports — it doesn’t work for Duke or Northwestern… or in general

Last week offered a sobering reminder about the intersections involving sports analysis, personal preferences, and actual reality.

In the course of human events, we often seek outcomes which fulfill our hopes and longings. Being emotional and aspirational creatures, we want so badly for certain things to happen — this is good and proper and reasonable. We’re hard-wired to yearn — in fact, we’re meant to be that way.

One problem with our hard-wiring: We often allow our intellects to be guided by our passions. This can be a good thing, but it takes time in life to learn to make sure that our wants do not dominate our thought processes.

It’s a simple-enough concept to grasp: When our brain wants something at a deep and primal level — when we invest a lot of emotion and meaning in Event X going from possibility to reality — we think about all the ways Event X can in fact emerge. Thinking becomes wish projection, not necessarily an honest appraisal of the situation.

In simpler terms, we bend and manipulate information to fit the possibility we want, instead of allowing information to coexist with the reality of a situation on the ground. Thought becomes a means of justifying or lining up our hopes, instead of squaring with and submitting to an accurate depiction of things as they are.

This is true in politics, as we approach election season, but again, last week manifested this dynamic in college basketball.


Tweeps had asked me on Twitter, “Matt, Northwestern has all these wins — do you think the Wildcats can really make the NCAA tournament this year?”

The question itself was simple and reasonable, but as the dialogue continued with a few readers, it became apparent that they felt Northwestern was really close to getting in.

Do I love the enthusiasm? Yes. Would I want to see Northwestern (and the other four schools which have missed all 77 NCAA tournaments, dating back to the first one in 1939) make the Dance? Heck, yes.

Does this mean the Wildcats were really close to getting in? No.

Remember, raw numbers of wins and losses do not determine NCAA bids.  Quality wins and overall strength of schedule create an NCAA-worthy resume, and Northwestern was sorely lacking on both fronts. Readers pointed to all the winnable games coming up against the Big Ten’s lower tier, making it relatively easy for Northwestern to reach and even exceed the 20-win mark.

However, if 22 wins are empty-calorie conquests, that’s not a dossier worthy of inclusion in the field of 68.

People wanted to hope with Northwestern. I completely understand it, but the idea that the Wildcats were “really close” to a bid? It never really held a lot of weight or legitimacy. The Wildcats did not win the kind of game — not at any point — which suggested that their resume was substantial.

In the middle of January, teams which have not yet registered statement wins need to collect them before we can talk about their tournament chances. This is especially true for programs which do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.

That last phrase leads to an example of wish projection on the other side of the spectrum.


Last week on the internet, and more precisely, #CollegeBasketballTwitter, you probably saw a fair amount of tweets about a Duke-Kentucky NIT championship game, or “Where will Duke and Kentucky be seeded in the NIT?” People so desperately want to see these schools brought low, much as they want to see the feel-good story of Northwestern having its moment in the sun.

However, if Northwestern never did anything to merit the benefit of the doubt, Duke and Kentucky never really did anything to LOSE the benefit of the doubt in terms of being NCAA tournament teams.

Come on here — Kentucky beat Duke, but also Louisville. The Cats suffered one really crummy loss (Auburn), but nothing else to profoundly drag down their profile. Their non-conference schedule wasn’t overwhelmingly difficult, but John Calipari loaded it with plenty of games against power-conference teams and credentialed mid-majors such as UCLA and Albany. No, the full resume isn’t extremely impressive, but this is not a fringe NCAA tournament resume; it’s merely one which is not going to pull in a particularly high seed. The idea that Kentucky was in or near First Four territory was absurd.

People simply hoped Kentucky would return to the NIT for the first time since 2013.

For Duke, the dynamic of wish projection was even more in evidence.

The Blue Devils defeated Indiana, VCU and Georgetown — not murderer’s row, but solid teams. At least two will make the NCAAs this March, possibly all three if the Hoyas can get hot and stay hot. Losing to Clemson isn’t as bad a loss as first thought, since the Tigers have been a problem for other ACC programs as well. Losing at home to Syracuse does represent a missed opportunity and an alarming sign of weakness, especially on the heels of a home-court loss to Notre Dame. However, none of those losses are bad in the sense of suffering a major blow to the RPI rating. As is the case with Kentucky, Duke simply won’t get that high a seed this time, but Duke would need to completely unravel in order to be near the cut line in a couple months.

When the Blue Devils handled North Carolina State on the road last Saturday, and when Kentucky smashed Vanderbilt right after Duke did its thing, all those NIT jokes vanished quite quickly.

If you want something badly in life, by all means cheer hard for it. Just don’t allow the fervent nature of your longing to be a substitute for an analysis of the actual situation. To be just a bit more specific, wait until a situation reaches critical mass, and it becomes especially legitimate to wonder if the improbable is possible.

Northwestern, Duke and Kentucky never came particularly close to those thresholds. All three teams reaffirmed their identities on the court last week — NU in the wrong direction, Duke and UK in the right one.

Let’s hope we all learned a lesson or two from the experience.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.