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Saturday, June 25, 2022

OUBbC: Swishes and switch-offs mark a day of the weird and the mundane

Calum Isaacs talks us through the recent Oxford and Lincoln Basketball match in the latest of his column following OUBbC.

Oxford 101-50 Lincoln

Free throws in basketball are a closed skill. A closed skill is a skill that when used, there is nothing dynamic, nothing new you need to respond to. You get fouled and the referee blows his whistle, and then you’re alone. It’s just you and the ball and the hoop. This is something that can be practised, again and again and again. And the only difference when it comes to using it in a match is the pressure.

The thing is, last Wednesday’s match against Lincoln did not really put the mens’ Oxford Blues under much pressure (have a peek at the scoreline), and yet their free throw success rate was abysmal. They missed nine out of eighteen attempts. What was even weirder is that this 50% success rate was lower than their success rate at shooting threes—shots from far out and under duress. Their 55% three rate was exceptional.

The theory I’d like to put forward is that it was about pressure, but in the other causal direction. That is, I believe the Blues’ success at free throws might be inversely related to the pressure they’re under. Lincoln were not a proper match. Oxford’s superiority was clear from the first couple of minutes. So, when Oxford were stepping up for free throws, it just didn’t matter. They were going to win anyway. And what does scoring a free throw prove? Conversely, scoring a three proves everything.

Take one instance when Alex, the high-IQ star player you met last week, was leading one of the attacks. He looked both ways, saw Lincoln desperately covering the available passing options, and then did this subtle cock of the head like ‘ok, alright then, fine’. He hit a perfect shot over the guy in front of him and through the middle of the hoop without it touching the rim—what is fittingly known as a ‘swish’.

In this way, shooting a three can be like pulling the ripcord on an attack, just going for it. In particular, Karl Baddeley, who to be fair is a shooting guard, scored six threes out of nine attempts. These high-value shots maintained the Blues’ momentum throughout the game, so that there was never any real point where they faltered, so that Lincoln were never allowed to hope.

So, scoring threes is a way to show how good you are. And this game, in a nutshell, was Oxford showing how good they can be. They may not have shown the absurd dominance of the women’s Blues, who this week won their respective league match 113-17 (what??), but it was still an overpowering performance. Josh S hit 25 points, including 13 rebounds. Alex hit 20 points. Orin, the captain, got 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 steals. That’s only 4 steals away from a ‘triple double’, i.e. hitting double digits in all three metrics.

Josh Soifer (Image Credit: Mansoor Ahmed).

The fact he got close to this is pretty demonstrative of Lincoln’s sloppiness. They were easily pickpocketed in possession far too many times, and, in consequence, it felt like Oxford were just constantly on the attack. It felt that way to me. Imagine what it felt like to the Lincoln players who had to constantly be turning back, demoralised, to defend yet another offensive. Not a fun afternoon.

My afternoon was also not the best. What is certainly not a closed skill but is still one repeated enough times for mastery to be possible is the talent of negotiating an Oxford term. And, by my fourth term here, I very much have not mastered it. Consequently, I watched this game in a state of unnecessary hunger and tiredness. And therefore, it was hard for me, sitting there in what seemed like a freezing cold sports hall, in that hazy, not-maximally-conscious condition that it seems most of us experience life through by this point in term, to diagnose whether my detachedness as the match went on was really related to the game state.

But either way, around midway through the third quarter, I made the note, “I’ve stopped keeping track of the score”. Oxford had a forty-point lead and counting, and what happened next didn’t seem to matter very much. Then, as if the world wanted to test whether I really believed what I’d just written, my next note reads, “there is some problem with the scoreboard?”.

There are two courts at Iffley Road. One is in the Acer Nethercott Hall, which is only a couple of years old, and with its crisp wooden walls and general new feeling seems to merit that hackneyed term: ‘state of the art’. The other is in the airy and school-like Main Sports Hall, which this match was moved to (from the Acer Nethercott) at late notice.

Though it was initially built specifically to accommodate Rhodes Scholars’ basketball needs, the hall is now a bit worse for wear—look at the backboard’s shabby blue safety barrier in this article’s header image. Still, you’d expect it to do the job. Yet the reason any of this matters, and the reason I know(/have been complained to) about the late-notice change of venue, is this scoreboard incident. That is, the hall did not do its job.

It turns out the scoreboard is quite important in a basketball match. For the period it was not working, the game had an offbeat, chimerical edge, like it was a training session. It was the same sense of unreality I got from watching lockdown football with fake crowd noise, like a key ingredient that made this whole charade actually mean something was being withheld.

For the harm it caused, the incident certainly got adequate reaction. The referee was really angry. The other team’s coach was really angry. Bill, the Oxford club president, came to me after the match incensed. “This is what we’re up against!”

It had definitely been a distraction, and Oxford will now be subject to a £150 fine (though most of that will be covered by Sports Fed, the body in charge of Oxford sport). Yet you might still ask whether Bill’s anger was a bit over the top. I mean they had just won a game by 50 points.

But it’s easier to understand in context. Bill and Jamie, the coach, have tried everything they can to make Oxford basketball feel official and organised. While Lincoln line up with their no. 2 wearing a no. 12 shirt with the one peeled off, both Oxford players and coaches wear shining new Kappa-branded outfits. While Lincoln warm up in a fairly causal way, Oxford have this system where everybody who goes past each other does a passing high five, which oddly makes it feel very coordinated. While Lincoln stand around informally to get their pre-game team talk, Oxford set up in a proper team talk ‘formation’ with the five starters sitting down and the rest of the players behind, except for Bill who stands next to Jamie’s seat.

With that all in place, with the game going as well as it was, I guess it felt like a kick in the teeth for Bill for one of the few things out of his control to fail. But its significance in that sense shows how everything else is going so right. The team is now 5-0 overall this season—a perfect record, including the three league wins I’ve covered in these articles. It’s the team’s biggest win streak since the 2010-11 season. And for all that was weird about that day. For all the strangeness about the free throws and the threes, for all my hunger and general personal disarray, for all the scoreboard brouhaha: the result itself was thoroughly mundane. Winning is becoming commonplace for the Oxford Blues.

Image Credit: OUBbC.

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