We are headed out to play defending national champion Illinois Wesleyan on the road tonight. They are a little down from last season, having graduated the national player of the year and a few other top players. But like all good programs, they don't rebuild, they reload, so we will have our hands full.
The thing I've learned about playing really good teams, though, is that we have to approach the game without fear. As the warden said to the prisoner in the movie classic Cool Hand Luke, "Son, you gotta get your mind right!" In coaching the System, a big part of the deal is to get your players minds right: to avoid worrying about the opponent and concentrate on your own game.
Think about it like this: can you name who UCLA's biggest rival was during the Wooden era? USC, maybe? Washington State? The thing is, the rivalries were never a central feature of their great run because Wooden didn't make them into one. He preached to his teams that they need not be overly concerned with the opponent, just their own performance. Is there any wonder then that UCLA was not associated in the public mind with any huge rival?
Forget your opponents' reputations. Sure, some of them are probably pretty darned good, but trust me, they are spending about five times as much practice time preparing for you as you are for them. And they are probably more concerned about your system than you are with theirs, so you already have taken a mental step in the right direction.
And your players to will be much more relaxed and focued on their own game if they quit concerning themselves with the other team. Teach them that "we aren't changing our approach. We will do what we do, and we'll either outscore the opponent, or not." Or as Bob Knight once put it, in his own colorful way, "There are a billion people in China who could care less about whether Indiana won tonight." So keep things in perspective.
Yes, the outcome matters to us. We'd love to sneak up on Weslayan. But we can't control outcomes, only processes: effort, execution, energy. If you can convince your players that they need not fear anyone, and that they will be okay as long as they play their own game and have some fun, then they'll never be in awe of anyone again.
Again, expectatons shouldn't be about outcomes or opponents, but about our own effort level. And that is something we can always control.