Debunking the “Upset” Myth

By Chilltown

We are only three weeks into the college basketball season, yet it seems that the upset bug has spread from college football to basketball. At least five times a week, we read headlines such as “St. Mary’s Shocks No. 13 Oregon in Upset”, or even “Texas Tech Upsets No. 14 Gonzaga”. These headlines create the false impression that the winners of the “upsets” are vast underdogs who played a game of a lifetime to beat the ranked opponent. In fact, they do a great disservice to the victorious teams. Join me after the jump as I analyze why these games and others are not upsets.
Let’s take the example of the Saint Mary’s-Oregon game. Oregon, ranked 13th in the country, was expected to finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th in the Pac 10, widely considered the best conference in the land. Saint Mary’s was a consensus second pick behind Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference (WCC), a league whose bottom is terrible. However Oregon is a team still finding itself after losing Aaron Brooks to the NBA, and Saint Mary’s is a team returning four starters, and gaining Paddy Mills, a star freshman who played on the Australian national team. The teams are a lot closer than they look at first glance. So when St. Mary’s defeats Oregon 97-89 at St. Mary’s whose crowd undoubtedly would have been its most fired-up, it really cannot be considered an upset.

Now if this game were played with the same result in January, when Oregon was hitting on all cylinders, you could possibly call it an upset, but right now, Oregon and St. Mary’s are too close to call this game an upset, especially at Saint Mary’s. The same can be said for Siena’s win last weekend over Stanford. Siena was picked to win the Metro Atlantic (MAAC) and Stanford, while ranked, was missing their lottery-bound center, Brook Lopez. Thus the headline “Siena Upsets No. 20 Stanford” is misleading; the only thing Siena did was expose the problems that Stanford has in its backcourt with superior play. It was not an upset.

This principle goes both ways, as evidenced by Gonzaga’s loss last night to Texas Tech, which, again, was termed an upset. Gonzaga does play in the WCC, but is a major team in everything but name. Texas Tech is always dangerous under Bob Knight, and are a perennial NCAA Tournament participant. However they lost Jarrius Jackson, and were only predicted to finish middle of the pack in the Big 12. But in Martin Zeno and Alan Voskuil, Tech has two proven scorers and leaders, and they rode Voskuil to their “upset” over Gonzaga. But in truth, without looking at the rankings, Texas Tech and Gonzaga are fairly close, especially as Gonzaga is without Josh Heytvelt. Thus Texas Tech’s win cannot be termed an upset.

Finally, calling these games upsets cheapens the real upsets of college basketball, such as New Orleans over NC State, or BYU over national title contender Louisville. In this college basketball season, with so much fluidity and apparent parity outside the top 10, the term “upset” will no doubt get a workout from the headline writers. Let’s hope that next time [insert good mid-major team here] beats No. 17 [insert major conference team here], the word upset is no where to be found.



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9 responses to “Debunking the “Upset” Myth

  1. Johninho

    Nice of you to be so charitable with especially my Oregon team, Chilltown, and I’d add that Oregon was without Bryce Taylor for this contest, but I still maintain that either Oregon should have done this St. Mary’s team in its sleep, or bringing four starters and considerable bench back from a team that made the Elite Eight is not what it’s cracked up to be.

    So I’ll call this an upset, kthx.

    Frankly, as good as he was, Paddy Mills wasn’t the problem – it was a weak frontline that did Oregon in. Oregon should have expected Mills to handle the majority of the scoring; and then when he missed, or when someone else took the shot for the Gaels, snatched up every defensive rebound in the game. That’s how a Pac-10 frontline would win. Instead, Saint Mary’s traded pound-for-pound on rebounds and second chance points, and that allowed Mills’ admittedly torrid scoring to carry the day.

    The others? Yeah, I have slightly higher expectations for Gonzaga than to have that much trouble with the Red Raiders, but there’s a reason they put up with Bobby Knight’s shit in Lubbock and we saw it.

    But BYU is nasty again this year, and even though the Ville didn’t have Scott Padgett, something about a goofy-looking bald white kid who wears a 40 number getting 20+ on a Rick Pitino defense just warms my heart this holiday season.

    Great post.

  2. morethananelectrician

    I don’t think there are too many true upsets of significance in Novemeber that carry much weight. It may matter to bubble teams trying to get into the tournament, but the teams that have been “upset” so far this season are all still relative locks to get into the tourney.

    These other teams (BYU, Texas Tech and St. Mary’s) know that these wins carry forward to Selection Sunday. Louisville, Oregon and Gonzaga can spend this time working on rotations and experimenting with match ups. Although the would rather win these games, I am sure they were all hoping for some close games early in the non-conference season since they already know they’ll be playing in March. Those losses will increase practice intensity and ultimately be building blocks to a greater season. Oregon may be the exception to this theory.

    But, look at that UCLA win over solid MSU and what that did to vault the Bruins to an even higher level. The experience gained in close early games are great and they are even greater when you come out on top.

  3. chilltown

    If you are implying that teams like Oregon and Gonzaga don’t play as hard because they are in the top-25 and seem to be assured of playing in the tourney, I think you are wrong. However all three teams are missing key players either to graduation or suspension, so it is quite valid to say that they are not at top form. That is why I said that if these wins occurred in January, they could be considered upsets.

  4. This is quite the “East-of-the-Mississipi” post. I’d say that GW over UK was absolutely an upset. Belmont over Cincy was definitely an upset. And, just to get out west for you, Mercer defeating Mayo and USC was an upset. Louisville was probably overrated, definitely with bad assistants who can’t scout well, who wouldn’t perform well in a setting where they have to play every day, not to mention they lost their first/second best post player in the last week.
    I totally agree with the point that if these games happened in March, they would be nothig more than games that lingered for just a little bit. Sports news gets slow and ESPN feels the need to talk about UK losing to GW for three days.

  5. morethananelectrician

    I am not saying the don’t play hard. But they do have the freedom to use some of their depth and try out different rotations and combinations that other teams are not afforded.

    Those “bubble teams” need these games to rise over the hump.

    Oregon got out hustled by a 5-11 guard and have probably already reached the highest ranking they will see this year, their situation may be differnet than Louisville and Gonzaga.

    We will see how good BYU is tonight.

  6. Johninho

    “Oregon got out hustled by a 5-11 guard and have probably already reached the highest ranking they will see this year, their situation may be differnet than Louisville and Gonzaga.”

    Extremely doubtful. Oregon’s not as good as they were last year, but they’re also not as bad as people think.

    If Oregon toughens up inside, and Taylor comes back soon, they’ll be fine.

  7. chilltown

    Smoothron: I think you somewhat missed the point: the ones you mentioned are all clearly upsets. It cheapens those upsets to have the ones I mentioned called upsets.

    Also, while I am on the east coast, all the games I mentioned happened out west.

  8. Another big reason not to consider Siena’s win over Stanford an upset is that it was played in Albany on Siena’s home court.

    By the way, Siena lost to Cornell today. Way to keep the fires burning, Saints!

  9. Pingback: link to Debunking the “Upset” Myth « Writin’ Wrong

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