Last Saturday, the two presumed favorites in the ACC, Duke and North Carolina, lost their respective conference openers. The teams that beat them, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, proceeded to perform incredibly poorly in their next game. That might make one wonder if the basketball hangover exists. In other words, does a team typically have a letdown after it plays Duke (or some other high-profile team)?

To figure that out with some accuracy, one will need to control for many variables. But that can be time consuming and not something your humble correspondent can accomplish on a Friday morning. For now, let’s see how far we can get.

In all of my experiments, I have limited the possible scope of the hangover to regular season conference games. For my first try, I will look at a team’s record after they played the potential hangover team. When an ACC team plays Duke, what it the outcome of their very next game?1 I am using all games from the 2001-2002 season through last season. Let’s see the ten-best and ten-worst hangover teams by this method.

Strongest Hangover                      Weakest Hangover
Arizona St.            98-150 .395      NJIT                   22- 14 .611
UT Rio Grande Valley   27- 41 .397      Pepperdine            125- 83 .601 
Lipscomb               84-127 .398      Oregon                150-102 .595      
Miami OH               91-135 .403      Hawaii                128- 90 .587
North Carolina A&T     89-128 .410      Creighton             142-100 .587
Princeton              72-103 .411      Harvard               105- 75 .583
Rice                   93-133 .412      Bethune Cookman       125- 90 .581
San Diego              85-120 .415      Davidson              131- 97 .575
Portland               83-115 .419      Jackson St.           145-108 .573
Alabama A&M           106-146 .421      Gonzaga               118- 89 .570

Arizona State has a great reputation as a party school. Are opposing teams getting caught up in the culture enough to effect them in their next game? Initially, I thought I might have broken a scandal that would rock the college basketball world. But after further thinking, I don’t think so. These lists are largely an exercise in random-number generation modulated by two things.

First, note that historically poor teams tend to be in the strong hangover group and stronger teams tend be in the weak hangover group. The reason for this is that if you’ve just played Gonzaga, you are very likely not playing a team as good as Gonzaga in your next game. It’s a small thing, but over 200 games one can start to see the effect.

For some of these teams, the larger issue is one of travel partners. The Pac-12 and Ivy League have maintained consistent travel partners over the span of the study period. If a team has just played Arizona State, then a little under half the time its next opponent will be Arizona. Likewise Princeton’s opponents are often playing Penn next, Oregon is paired with a typically-weak Oregon State and Harvard is similarly paired with Dartmouth.

But one drink doesn’t usually cause a hangover. It’s that excessive celebration that becomes the issue. Likewise, it may not be that simply playing a specific team causes a letdown. It’s the wins over those teams that does it. So for my next trick, let’s take a look at how a team’s opponents perform after those opponents experience a victory over the potential hangover team.

Strongest Hangover                       Weakest Hangover
Army                   57-82   .410      Gonzaga                17- 5   .773
UT Rio Grande Valley   19-27   .413      NJIT                   12- 4   .750
Miami OH               43-59   .422      Louisville             54-19   .740
North Carolina A&T     54-72   .429      UMass Lowell           19- 7   .731
Rice                   63-80   .441      Oral Roberts           41-16   .719
Sacramento St.         62-78   .443      Monmouth               79-34   .699
Miami FL               54-64   .458      Southern Utah          99-46   .683  
LIU Brooklyn           56-65   .463      Yale                   50-24   .676
Auburn                 72-83   .465      Pepperdine             79-38   .675
Ohio                   48-55   .466      IUPUI                  64-31   .674

This approach presents a new set of problems. If you were good enough to beat Gonzaga, then you were probably good enough to beat the next team on your conference schedule. A conference outlier in either direction has a better chance of showing up on these lists, but only looking at wins has reduced the sample dramatically, which adds more noise.

Ok, let’s cut the crap and add some sophistication. For my final experiment, let’s look at how teams did in their next game compared to expectation. I’ll take my final ratings to produce an expected point differential in every game and then compare the margin of the next game to what was expected. Here are the teams that produced the strongest and weakest hangovers using this method.

Strongest Hangover                     Weakest Hangover
Abilene Christian     -3.49  16-17     Northern Kentucky     +3.47  26-14
UT Rio Grande Valley  -2.64  19-27     Nebraska Omaha        +3.25  18-11
Georgia               -2.13  66-60     Grand Canyon          +3.03   9- 5
North Dakota St.      -2.11  29-24     Wichita St.           +2.36  38-35
Miami OH              -2.06  43-59     New Mexico            +2.28  59-31
UTEP                  -2.02  55-43     IUPUI                 +2.20  64-31
Houston               -1.98  58-61     Oral Roberts          +2.11  41-16
Hampton               -1.92  41-34     Lafayette             +2.04  68-43
Lehigh                -1.88  45-43     Cal St. Bakersfield   +1.96  10- 7
Lipscomb              -1.83  46-52     Albany                +1.93  64-40

This method should control for most of the issues with scheduling difference and other structural quirks in each conference. There are still some issues you could point to with respect to inaccuracies in my ratings method. But even so, I think we’d expect to see something more than continued number random generation.

Historically, teams beating Abilene Christian struggle the most in their next game, falling short of the expected margin by an average of 3.49 points. Among teams that existed throughout the span of the study, a win over Georgia has apparently provided the biggest hangover. On the flip side, Wichita State and New Mexico, two teams with good track records over the past decade-and-a-half, provide the biggest benefit for teams that beat them. We can say with some confidence that a big win over those teams doesn’t have a negative impact for the next game.

Furthermore, teams beating Duke have under-performed by an average of just .19 points in their next game. Teams beating Kansas have under-performed by .71 points, and teams coming off a win over UNC have over-performed by .95 points. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern that’s related to the prestige or quality of the team being beaten.

These lists largely illustrate how difficult it is to identify emotional factors. Humans generally identify these traits after the fact because they don’t have much skill doing so before the game. There are a bunch of things that affect the outcome of a game, and while having just beaten the best team in your conference may be one of them, that knowledge appears to only be useful in combination with many other things.

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1. If the next game is against a non-conference opponent or a tournament game, it is ignored.