Just Another January in College Basketball

-Zack Marseglia

 It seems like we have this conversation every year in college basketball. The unpredictable nature leads to wild upsets, breakout stars, and an early clear-cut favorite to bring home the title in March. This year however, has been one of the most surprising seasons of college basketball since the 2002-2003 season. An absurd amount of upsets, teams who can’t quite put it all together, and several surprise teams this year, have been the headlining stories of the year.

     The biggest surprise this year can be found in the backcourt of Oklahoma. Trae Young exploded into the national spotlight with his first 40 point game against Oregon in late November. He hasn’t slowed down since, going for 40 points three more times, and is averaging 29.8 points and 9.7 assists per game, both number one nationally.

     Duke came into this year as the title favorite, and freshman phenom Marvin Bagley has done his best to keep them alive. Bagley, who graduated from high school early to play at Duke, is averaging 21.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game this season. Duke however, has struggled mightily on the defensive side of the ball. If they can’t figure out their defensive woes, it could be an early outing from the tournament.

The most surprising element of this years season however, could be the amount of top 15 teams to be upset by unranked opponents. The number, as of February 1st, sat at 43 unranked opponents upsetting top 15 teams. Is the AP Poll really that off this year? In order to check, I used RPI rankings, which is a measure of team win percentage, opponents win percentage, and the opponents opponents win percentage. This year, the average RPI of teams in the top 15 is .639, the lowest since 2002. When compared to the average RPI since 2002 at .6487, with a standard deviation of .0054. The RPI this year, is 1.79 standard deviations below the average since 2002. Does this explain the number of upsets? To do that, I recorded the number of unranked upsets of top 15 teams until February 1st since 2002. With that said, the average number of upsets until February 1st is 32.8, with a standard deviation of 6.37, putting this year 1.601 standard deviations above the average. So, above average upsets, below average RPI. Sounds solid correct? Wrong. The correlation between each of these events only came in at -.33, which is a weak relationship between the number of upsets and the RPI. So what is causing the number of upsets, and the below average RPI? The below average RPI can be explained by the number of teams who have jumped into the rankings, and the bottom dwelling teams in most conferences are not easy wins this season. Equating to more teams splitting, and losing, lowering the cumulative win percentage that we have seen thus far. Also, opponents opponents factor in for 25% of the total RPI, a factor that has no impact on them whatsoever. So what can be the cause of the upsets? It really boils down to hot and cold shooting. Early this year, #5 Florida was upset by Loyola-Chicago, where the Gators went just 2/19 from deep, and only shot 36.9% from the field. Compared to Loyola, who went 6/12 from three, and 52% from the field. Which means no amount of math or science can determine a team’s ability to play on any given day.

         What do I think will happen this year? First, let’s look back at a similar year. 2011 gave us 43 upsets, with the second lowest RPI since 2002 at .642, above this years low of .639. In 2011, all the Elite Eight teams were ranked inside the top 13 in the preseason AP Poll, and at the week 13 poll, seven out of the eight teams were ranked inside the top 25. Since 2002, only three National Champions were unranked in the preseason poll, and only two were unranked at the week 13 poll. Of the ranked teams at week 13, the average poll position of the eventual National Champion sat at 6.3 in the poll, actually down from the average preseason ranking of the National Champs to be average poll spot of 5.25. As we know, polls only give spectators a sense of the quality of the teams. The most reliable statistic the the Strength of Record. In the 10 years since 2007, the team with the number one strength of record went on to win the title four times. If you expand that to the top three, the number balloons to nine out of ten seasons where the eventual National Champion had a Strength of Record rating inside the top 3. With that said, making Final Four predictions is obviously contingent upon how the actual bracket plays out, but in a perfect world, here are my predictions:

Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State, Duke.

           Before you give me flak for picking Duke, hear me out. No team boasts as much talent as the Blue Devils. Defensively, they are atrocious, but one has to give Coach K the benefit of the doubt. Top to bottom I think this is the most talented team in the country, but just have not been able to play well. There is still a month left of the season, and I would guess they turn things around and make a run to the Final Four.

Virginia is the best team in the country as of right now. Defensively they are fast, aggressive, and smart. Hands down this is the best defense in college basketball. However, they lack a true offensive superstar to put the team on their back when Virginia goes cold, or late in a game when Virginia needs a basket. That is my only concern with this team.

          If Virginia is number one, Purdue is an awfully close number two. Isaac Haas is a force inside, all 7’2” of him. Around him, Purdue has good shooters and playmakers on the perimeter, and are a defensively sound team. This team is not going to be an easy out come March. My only concern is that this team is peaking at the wrong time. Still with all of February left to go, carrying a long win streak into March seems like a team is bound to lose.

Michigan State is my final Final Four team, for much of the same reason Duke is. I feel like Michigan State hasn’t played up to its potential yet. Miles Bridges is a go to scorer and superstar, and with the rise of forward Jaren Jackson, Michigan State has a one-two punch that, when on, can take down any team in the country. I feel like when this team reaches its peak, it could run the table come March.

It seems like we have this conversation every year. That College Basketball somehow became a vastly different entity, and its unpredictable nature is a new part of the sport. Every year we get high on teams that rise up the rankings, only to be shocked when they get knocked off by a school you’ve never heard of. Every year is, “This is the year I’ve figured it out.” Nope, sorry, that isn’t this year, nor is it next year. Let’s just enjoy College Basketball for what it is; an unpredictable, unprecedented, and shocking sport that is not meant for us to figure out, but for us to enjoy all of its madness.