In college football, BCS apologists contend that the system works because it makes the entire regular season serve as a quasi-playoff. It’s a terrible argument, but every year you see a few hovering preseason top 25 teams play their way into a sort of single elimination tournament for the fall. Some rise to the top, like the 2010 Auburn Tigers, while others cool off and prove their success was not sustainable.
In college basketball, regular season games are by no means as vital, but those fringe type teams must take advantage of early season non-conference games to build their resume and earn credibility.
Every November and December there are upsets that make us gasp. I’ve learned not to make sweeping conclusions regarding them. These results are more about what can be gained instead of what was lost – momentum builders, if you will.
Naturally, teams get up for big games, they’re more amped to play No 1 than No 301. But I’m noticing a bit of a disturbing trend, this season at least, that is really putting a damper on all the fun that comes from upsets.
Last week, Temple downed then No 3 Duke in a game which the Owls controlled nearly from wire-to-wire. Students chanted “Overrated!” and then ran on the court. The victory was lauded as a moment that could put this team over the top as conference rival Xavier continued to free fall.
“We’re thrilled to be standing here as winners tonight,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said after the game.
Three days later, the Owls were grounded, at home, by the Dayton Flyers.
“There may be some leftover residue from the [Duke] win the other night,” Dunphy said.
And there’s plenty more big game hangover offenders; average to slightly above average teams desperately looking to build momentum and a foundation for a successful season. They get the signature win that could thrust them between the top 15 and some favorable coverage from the blogosphere, only to diminish that win’s value by losing the following game.
Remember when Rutgers defeated Florida in double overtime? It was a euphoric victory for the Garden State. RAC this, Mike Rice that. It could have been the perfect lead in to Big East play for the Scarlet Knights.
Then on New Year’s Day, Rutgers lost to South Florida and then to West Virginia, but recovered with wins over UConn and Pittsburgh. That’s a 2-2 start to conference play. A great start by this program’s standards, but they could easily be undefeated in the Big East, receiving praise as one of the hottest teams in the country while sniffing their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. Instead, they still have work to do.
I hope I’m not being too irrational here.
Serving as Example C, Davidson pulled off one of the most improbable true road victories when they beat Kansas in Kansas City, only to kick themselves repeatedly during a seven-day Christmas break as they followed up the big “W” with a bit “L” against UMass.
Davidson’s win served as the Jayhawks own momentum killer, as it came 48 hours after they defeated a Jared Sullinger-less Ohio State team.
Other casualties of the big win hangover bug include, in no particular order, Fordham, UNLV, Central Florida, Loyola Marymount, Bowling Green… and the entire Pac 12 conference.
So who’s doing it right? Easy. Two teams should come immediately to mind: the Indiana Hoosiers and Seton Hall Pirates.
IU converted any doubters into believers the moment Christian Watford swished a game winner against Kentucky. Not only have the Hoosiers continued to roll (their only loss came on the road against Michigan State), the momentum built from the win over the Wildcats seemed to have restored the glory of Hoosier basketball.
“We’re trying to take these successes – stacking success – and build on them long term,” head coach Tom Crean told the Worldwide Leader before playing Kentucky, proving he is focused on building off big wins that can help his team ascend to the nation’s elite.
For Seton Hall, it may have been more about the margin of victory than the opponent but, after losing to Syracuse on December 28th, the Pirates are 4-0 beginning with a 19 point win over West Virginia.
Coming in to the season, Kevin Willard’s club was projected by nearly everyone to finish in the bottom third of the Big East. Now nearly halfway through January, Williard is building a case for conference coach of the year, and his team currently sits as a No. 4 seed in our latest NCAA Tournament projections. They’re not in that position based on name recognition. It’s been earned from their recent play.
The bottom line is that using tough opponents and signature victories need to serve as a springboard, and simply getting hyped for that one marquee opponent on the schedule may be the difference between a true overachieving team and a befuddling one.
The good times should begin after students storm the court.
So with their win over Ohio State now two days behind them, life must go on for the Illinois Fighting Illini. Will they remain focused for their next game against Penn State, or take the night off and negate any gains made from knocking off the Buckeyes?
Here’s to hoping they buck the trend.