Medcalf Musings: Crucial chemistry lesson

Frank Haith's Tigers and Fred Hoiberg's Cyclones have capitalized on positive team chemistry. Getty Images/US Presswire

I recognized it weeks ago.

During Missouri’s 76-69 win at Iowa State on Jan. 11, I could see the camaraderie from press row.

The Tigers, engaged in a tougher-than-anticipated matchup against the Cyclones and seeking to erase the memory of a recent loss at Kansas State, demanded more from one another. During one second-half timeout, Michael Dixon stormed to the sideline and spewed profanity as if he’d just watched Eddie Murphy’s “Raw.”

But it wasn’t anger. It was motivation. He couldn’t stand to see his team struggle.

And there it was again Saturday. The undersized, undermanned Tigers -- supposedly coached by the wrong man according to early doubters -- were down eight points against Kansas with just over two minutes to play. And just like their other efforts, they just pushed for one another, as their critics continued their search for reasons to doubt their postseason potential.

It’s essentially the same crew from last season, an average season that ended with blowout losses in the Big 12 and NCAA tourneys. But there’s just a different level of chemistry with Frank Haith’s squad this season.

The bond between the top-5 team -- the same connection that’s fueled its impressive start and that stunning rally over Kansas -- is just as significant as its talent.

Throughout the nation on Saturday, the latter asset carried the day in some of the games. But chemistry remains the critical undercurrent to the continued turbulence in college basketball. And it’s going to dictate the buildup to Selection Sunday, too.

The lack of it has turned UConn into a Big East afterthought. An abundance of togetherness, however, has made Notre Dame one of the season’s most surprising success stories.

If talent alone guaranteed accomplishment, then the Huskies -- who boast two players (Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb) with NBA lottery potential -- would not have entered the weekend spiraling their way toward the bubble.

The Huskies’ pregame players meeting, prompted by interim coach George Blaney, seemed to inspire the team during its victory over Seton Hall. But connectedness in spurts won’t reverse the program’s current mess.

Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish’s youngsters have climbed onto the backs of junior Jack Cooley and senior Scott Martin. They don’t have UConn’s future NBA millionaires, but their solidarity contrasts UConn’s leadership void.

The Huskies are still searching for Kemba Walker. They need his spirit, not just his talent. His Pied Piper qualities helped Connecticut win the national title a year ago. The remaining group has rarely looked that fluid without him.

Sometimes, the cohesive characteristic of a key player isn’t immediately recognized until he’s gone.

Fab Melo’s absence changed Syracuse’s entire defensive prowess, but the Orange looked like a Final Four contender in his first game back Saturday. Travon Woodall’s return has revitalized Pitt, too.

Ohio State’s young squad possesses more talent than last season’s team. But ask Thad Matta how much this group has missed former captain David Lighty.

The Buckeyes’ win at Wisconsin was impressive. For the first time this season, the Buckeyes stayed poised in a tight road game against a Big Ten contender, something they failed to do in previous losses to Illinois and Indiana. When asked about Ohio State’s earlier struggles, Matta is quick to reflect on his squad’s youth and the time it takes sometimes to get young players on the same page.

It’s a delicate balance -- between talent and chemistry -- that often determines a program’s ceiling. Coaches recruit skilled athletes who will work within their systems. And then they try to create an atmosphere that spurs bonding. If they don’t find the right formula, then they set up a platform for disappointment.

Fred Hoiberg signed a bunch of transfers who’d missed the mark at their former schools. Now the Cyclones have won three straight and they’ve made their case as a top-4 squad in the Big 12 and an NCAA tourney team.

Few questioned the talent that Hoiberg had assembled. Many wondered how he’d put all of the puzzle pieces together. But Hoiberg has found the right elixir for an Iowa State squad that began to develop chemistry during a preseason trip to Italy.

The challenge with chemistry is that it’s not instant. Those without it in early February may never secure it. The teams with the rapport that bolsters contenders can’t necessarily articulate how they’ve attained it. But they know it’s vital for their ambitions.

Kentucky is America’s No. 1 basketball program based on a talent pool that’s rich enough to send five or more players to the NBA next season. Anthony Davis’ stat line (22 points, 8 rebounds, 8 blocks and 2 steals against South Carolina on Saturday) seems exaggerated on paper.

But John Calipari’s team also enjoys a certain solidarity that’s rarely so obvious with young teams. The Wildcats' on-court familiarity suggests that they’ve played together for more than three months. Davis’ Dizzy Gillespie blends with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s Miles Davis, creating basketball jazz every time they step onto the floor.

Yeah, they’re talented. But they’re also aligned.

And as Missouri, Notre Dame, Kentucky and others proved again this weekend, good teams tend to excel when players are unified.

This season has also shown -- and the rest of the college basketball season will confirm -- that gifted rosters usually fall short of their potential when they don’t have that togetherness.