The media/fan consensus on this college basketball season is that it’s a down year, wide open, a crapshoot, and this year’s March Madness is going to be one zany mess indeed, so let’s all jump aboard the IUPUI bandwagon.
That’s exactly the opposite of the way I’m seeing it. Sure, I agree with the consensus, articulated by Jay Bilas and others, that quality of play is down in this era, thanks to the one-and-done stuff and other smaller factors, including the way the game is officiated.
But I’ve seen a lot of college basketball this season, and I’m not seeing a down year, at least by the standards of this era. This is entirely subjective, of course – all about the eye test – but to me there’s at least 10-12 really good college teams right now.
The Big Ten is a better basketball league right now than the SEC is a football league. Admittedly, the B10 doesn’t have a basketball equivalent to Alabama in football, but I’m talking top-to-bottom. Remember that UConn-Butler national final two years ago? Neither of those teams, it says here, could come close to winning the Big 10 in 2013.
The big-picture point: According to BPR, true Cinderella has less of a shot this year than she has in a while.
So I’m skimming the latest issue of ESPN the Magazine (a magazine one generally doesn’t, in the conventional sense, read) and I come upon the following pull quote: “As for upsets, 18 unranked teams had toppled top-five opponents through Feb. 27, the most in one season over the past five years.”
My initial reaction was that can’t be true, and off the top of my head I could only think of two or three of the 18. My second reaction is if that’s true, it’s very, very deceptive. My third reaction was to check it out. I have the Internet in my home. I can do that.
Going through 18 weeks of AP polls through Feb. 27, I came up with 12 times an unranked team beat a top five team. Here they are:
Dec. 22 Syracuse lost at home to Temple, 83-79
Jan. 10 Arizona lost at Oregon, 70-66
Jan. 15 Indiana lost at home to Wisconsin, 64-59
Jan. 22 Louisville lost at Villanova, 73-64
Jan. 26 Louisville lost at Georgetown, 53-51
Feb. 2 Kansas lost at home to Oklahoma State, 85-80
Feb. 5 Florida lost at Arkansas, 80-69
Feb. 6 Kansas lost at TCU, 62-55
Feb. 7 Indiana lost at Illinois, 74-72
Feb. 9 Kansas lost at Oklahoma, 72-66
Feb. 9 Michigan lost at home to Wisconsin, 65-62
Feb. 27 Michigan lost at Penn State, 84-78
I’m not necessarily saying ESPN is wrong; maybe their used their own power rankings instead of the AP poll or something, although a 33 percent disparity is a bit hard to believe. It’s of course possible I screwed up somewhere. I only counted top five teams at the time they were top five teams of course. Maybe ESPN figured it some other way, although I can’t imagine a way that wouldn’t be dumb or deliberately misleading.
Anyway, the question is, are these upsets indicative that the sport is crazily wide-open this year? I don’t think so, but I can see why they create the impression in people who, sanely, follow sports only for casual fun and aren’t prone to objective analysis.
Note that half of them occurred in one seven-day period, Feb. 2-9, during which you could turn on SportsCenter and see drunken college kids rushing courts pretty much nightly. That image, along with the 4-5 week period when the number-one teams seemed to lose every week, naturally sticks in people’s heads.
Five of the 12 are attributable to Louisville and Kansas having weeks in which they fell and couldn’t get up, resulting in three-game losing streaks that took place entirely between publish dates for the AP poll; had the poll come out a few days earlier in each case, you could wipe 3-4 games off the list. And Louisville’s tailspin actually began with a loss that wasn’t an upset at all, to then No. 6 Syracuse.
Louisville has since won 10 straight and Kansas seven straight. Also, while Georgetown was unranked at the time it upset Louisville, it hasn’t lost since and is now itself a top-five team. Similarly, two of the 12 upsets were administered by Wisconsin, now ranked.
I see only two games on that list, Kansas-TCU and, of course, Michigan-Penn State, in which a truly sub-mediocre team beat a truly good one, and in both cases the truly good one seems to have recovered. Eleven of the 12 were conference games with longtime rivals, and eight of those 11 were on the road.
You seeing a recipe for mayhem there? Me either.
Starkie and I talked about this on The Low Post last week and I suspect I didn’t express the above very well. The next day I got an e-mail from Pete Tiernan at Bracket Science with the subject line, “Will the “Quality Cliff,” lead to a chalky dance?” The body of the e-mail began: “The pundits keep saying we’re in for a wide-open tourney, but 12 teams are much stronger than the rest of the pack.”
Testify. Tiernan’s metrics (sorry I can’t link on the ipad, but go to bracketscience.com and search for a post titled “Are we headed over the quality cliff?”) and my eyes are seeing exactly the same thing- a tournament in which there may be plenty of 4-13 and 5-12 upsets, but also one in which the top three seeds will be stronger and more upset-proof than usual.
Not a bad thing.