It was altogether fitting on Wednesday night that the developer of social comparison theory, Leon Fetsinger, was born and raised in Brooklyn.
For us amateur psychologists, the social comparison theory explains how people generally evaluate themselves in comparison with the people around them, and is somewhat related to social mobility, where people try to improve their status (or the perception thereof) in various ways.
Fordham “improved their status” in the college basketball world way back in 1995 when it left the Patriot League to join the Atlantic 10. But by comparing themselves to a level probably above their means, the program, well it hasn’t been pretty for much of the last two decades, at least in league play, where their record stood at 76-256 heading into Wednesday’s first round game Atlantic-10 tilt with George Mason.
George Mason, you say? Didn’t they go to a Final Four once? Why yes, yes they did, and it was only nine years ago. In fact, the Patriots went to the NCAAs again in 2008 and 2011, when they were a No. 8 seed and dumped Villanova before losing to top-seeded Ohio St. But Jim Larranaga went to Miami after that season, and about that time other programs decided it was time for a little social mobility.
So after two decent seasons under Paul Hewitt in 2011-12 and 2012-13, George Mason made the move to the Atlantic-10. Fordham probably could have warned them about social comparison theory, but it’s likely they wouldn’t have listened anyway.
And now Fordham finally has someone it can compare itself more than favorable to in the Atlantic 10, as the Rams – despite leading scorer Eric Paschall being hobbled – beat George Mason for the fourth straight time, and the second consecutive season of this stage of the A-10 Tournament, 71-65, at the Barclays Center.
It likely spelled the end of Hewitt’s George Mason career. Hewitt, a Long Island native, took Georgia Tech to the NCAA final game in 2004, but it’s been a nightmare for the Patriots (9-22) since joining the A-10, a 6-26 record, and two tournament losses to Fordham.
But social comparison may just give Tom Pecora a new leash on life in the Bronx. The four conference wins young Fordham (10-20) posted are the most since 2007-08 (ironically, Pecora was in the CAA at the height of George Mason’s brilliance with Hofstra). They only have one senior, Bryan Smith, who played a big part Wednesday with 12 points, but the star of the show was German freshman Christian Sangfelder, who had been inconsistent for much of the season, but scored a career high 27 on 10-13 shooting and as a 6’7” shooter, can be a matchup nightmare.
Paschall, who had missed the previous two games, played just 11 minutes, two in the second half, but the team stepped up, Mandell Thomas scoring 13 to go with five assists and his usual excellent defense and Ryan Rhoomes adding eight.
“It is what it is,” Pecora said. “If you look, Eric being Rookie of the Year and Christian being on the All-Rookie team. We have (Ryan) Canty (who missed this season with an injury) and Rhoomes, who can both play at a 4 or 5. We have Mandell (Thomas), and we have seven freshmen on the roster total. Mandell will be a senior point guard to lead them. So I think the future’s bright.”
Fordham had actually won four of six A-10 games, beating Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s, and La Salle in addition to George Mason before dropping its last three regular season games. In addition to Sengfelder and Paschall, freshmen Nemanja Zarkovic, Antwoine Anderson, and Manny Suarez all saw minutes in Wednesday’s game.
The Rams’ statistical resume also fits that of a young team, extremely prone to turnovers (22.3, 331st), poor shooting (29.3 three-point %, 334th) and allowing too many easy baskets around the rim (50.2% two-point defense, 260th). But they do rebound the ball very well, which was important against George Mason, another good offensive rebounding team. The Patriots got just eight (27.6%) and that was just enough with the help of Sangfelder and company at the other end.
(If you’re wondering, last year’s second leading scorer at 17.3 points per game, sophomore Jon Severe, saw just four minutes and it remains to be seen what his future with the program might be after this season.)
This will complete Pecora’s fifth season at Fordham, and normally a coach with his type of record (the Rams’ 10th win matches a high for Pecora with the program) might be in the same boat going out to sea that Hewitt will likely find himself on. But this seems like it could be a different type of situation. The brass at Fordham by now, two decades into their Atlantic-10 run, that social comparison against the likes of VCU and last year’s Final Eight participant Dayton, among others, is not always fair.
The second straight season with an Atlantic-10 Tournament victory is most impressive, even if they both came over George Mason in the opening round, seeing as the Rams went five years without even QUALIFYING for the conference tournament. Only someone enduring another psychological phenomenon that Fetsinger is credited for coming up with – cognitive dissonance – can spin that stat into a positive light.
In fact, Fordham actually got to wear its white jerseys and sit on the home bench Wednesday as the No. 12 seed, the first time it beat out two teams in the A-10 final standings (George Mason and Saint Louis) since 2007-08.
Of course, the Rams will have to compare themselves with the giants of the A-10, VCU, Thursday afternoon, just 18 hours after wrapping up Wednesday’s win, and they will likely have to do it without Paschall, barring a miraculous recovery. But VCU, seeded just fifth, is hobbled as well, having gone just 5-6 since losing perhaps the best defensive player in the country (and you’ll get little argument here) in senior Briante Weber.
“I don’t know about tomorrow (Thursday),” Sangfelder said. “We’ll figure it out.”
An upset Thursday would likely be the biggest win of the Pecora Era (at least since Fordham upset St. John’s in his first month on the job in 2011), and might add a little more confidence and expectation heading toward 2015-16.
Maybe soon they won’t have to look up to compare themselves to the other teams in the Atlantic-10 for once.
“You’ve heard me say this before, but we’ve only had three bad practices all year,” Pecora said. “The fact that this team has come out hard every day speaks volumes about where we are.”