When an upset happens in the first week or two of the season, it’s usually the result of one or both participating teams being misunderstood in some way. Before Arkansas State won at Georgetown the first week of the season, it was with the thought that the Red Wolves were a below-average Sun Belt team and that the Hoyas were an above-average Big East team.
Based on how each team has played since then, it’s clear our information prior to that game was wrong. Entering Sun Belt play, Arkansas is in a virtual tie in the ratings as the second-best Sun Belt team while Georgetown is coming off a double-digit loss in its conference opener to Marquette and projected to have a losing record in the Big East.
To me, it doesn’t make the outcome of that game any less of an upset. Based on what we knew – or thought we knew – at the time, the result was very unexpected. The upsets in the first week or two of the season are usually due to misinformation while upsets later in the season are more due to pure fluke than an incorrect world view.
On Wednesday night, we almost had the undisputed upset of the year. DePaul, as a 24-point underdog in the most reputable sportsbooks, lost at Villanova 68-65. And it wasn’t one of those games where the losing team made a few late buckets and final score was deceptive. The Blue Demons were tied and had possession with 3:37 left and later had a decent look at a tying three-pointer at the buzzer.
It is sort of a law in college basketball broadcasting that you must say nice things about the teams you are covering. This manifests itself later in the season with broadcasters advocating for at-large bids for the most marginally relevant teams, but earlier in the season it results in what happened at the end of the DePaul/Villanova broadcast: Platitudes from the crew that DePaul will be more competitive this season. Good things are ahead for the Blue Demons.
There are some truly surprising stories from early in the season. Teams that weren’t expected to do much that have demonstrated consistently over the past seven weeks that they’re better than most people thought. DePaul has not been one of those teams. The Blue Demons are 7-7 and all of their wins have been at home, with only one of those against a team rated in the top 250.
Prior to the Villanova game, their losses weren’t encouraging, either. Only one had come to a possible at-large team and that was a 16-point road loss to Northwestern in a game where DePaul trailed 54-18 at the half. The Blue Demons lost to Rutgers at home by seven, but trailed in that game by 22 with ten minutes left. On the surface, one might need to see more than just one good performance to change one’s opinion much about the direction of the DePaul program this season.
That said, nobody was insinuating that DePaul was going to chase a winning conference record. Even a 6-12 Big East record would be a step forward. That would match the Blue Demons’ best conference record since their last winning season in 2007. After Wednesday’s loss, they are 25-138 in conference games since then. Amazingly, they finished in sole possession of the Big East cellar in six consecutive seasons from 2009 to 2014.1
So getting to the title of this post, I was wondering about seemingly-hopeless teams that have pulled off big upsets to start conference play and how things turned out for them going forward. Teams can improve during the season, and maybe this DePaul team is about to show us that they’ve suddenly figured it out. I’ve still got them projected to go 3-15 in league play and rated quite a bit worse than the next-worst Big East team, St. John’s. But that’s not very satisfying. What’s happened in the past when a potential league cellar-dweller has pulled off a huge upset to open conference play? Let’s check it out…
2011: USC Upstate 60, East Tennessee State 59. This game occurred on December 5th, so it’s not a completely fair comparison.2 In fact, there isn’t a completely fair comparison since 2011.3 But this was the conference opener, and Upstate had just a 9% chance even while playing on its home floor. After the miracle win, the Spartans would proceed to lose their next 13 games and finish last in the Atlantic Sun at 4-16. They were rated 312th after the win over ETSU and finished the season 318th.
2012: Utah 62, Washington State 60. This was actually the second conference game for Utah. (Remember how I said that there aren’t fair comparisons to the DePaul situation?) But coming off a 40-point loss to Colorado, the Utes were the best candidate in the country to go winless in conference play in 2012. They had a 7% chance to win this game and the upset boosted their ranking to 327. They would finish 305 and actually win two more conference games for a Pac-12 record of 3-15. But that wasn’t bad enough for last place as USC won just once in Pac-12 play that season – a 17-point win over Utah.
2013: UC Riverside 65, Cal State Northridge 64. This was also the second game of the conference season, but in this case Riverside pulled off the upset on the road, having been given just a 4% chance to do so. The victory raised the Highlanders ranking to 337. They would finish at 314 and win two more conference games to finish 3-15, last in the Big West.
2014: Air Force 75, UNLV 68. The Falcons were coming off a conference-opening win over Utah State at home, and this upset at UNLV bumped their ranking to 229. But rankings are dumb and Air Force was now leading the conference with a 2-0 record. Nothing like a little momentum and confidence to turn one’s luck around. Air Force would lose eight of its next nine and finish the season ranked 252. The Falcons did manage to finish 6-12 in conference, a full five games better than lowly San Jose State.
2015: Ball State 60, Eastern Michigan 59. Ball State was ranked 279 coming into their conference opener but pulled off a shocker over Eastern Michigan and followed that up with a more impressive win at Central Michigan. The Cardinals were 2-0 despite being ranked 209. They wouldn’t win another game that season and finished last in the league with a 2-16 record and a final ranking of 257.
The ultimate lesson here is that it’s foolish to think that the results of one 40-minute game could be more important from an evaluation standpoint than the previous 13 games combined. One thing nearly everyone in the world struggles with is knowing how much of Wednesday’s result was DePaul playing really well or Villanova playing poorly. We just assume it was some combination of the two. The advantage of using multiple games to evaluate a team is that the effect of opponents over- or under-achieving should even out.
If you’re a DePaul fan, you probably thought your team played really well. If you’re a Villanova fan, you probably thought your team played poorly. In neither case would you consider how well the opponent played but the result was probably some combination of the two. However, it could have been that DePaul was just DePaul and Villanova played really, really, really poorly. Or that Villanova played well, but DePaul played like a future Final Four team.
We cannot know for sure, and in fact it strikes me that it’s very rare that anyone even tries to sort this out after a game. I’m not about to, either. Falling back on the longer track record, this game is more likely to be an outlier rather than a turning point for either team. Sure, the Blue Demons will be competitive in some games – even the worst teams are at some point4 – and they may yet win Sunday against St. John’s. But based on what we’ve seen so far, even 6-12 would be a surprising accomplishment for Dave Leitao’s team.
|^1||People talk about Kansas’s streak of 12 consecutive seasons of at least sharing the Big 12 regular-season title, but I’m going to say DePaul’s streak is more impressive given the ‘sole possession’ requirement. I don’t think we’ll see a team do that again.|
|^2||Come to think of it, none of these are fair comparisons because all of these teams pulled off the upset whereas DePaul merely came close.|
|^3||Why 2011? This was the first season I used preseason ratings and my database of predictions only goes back this far.|
|^4||DePaul beat eventual nine-seed Providence while going 3-15 last season|