By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush.
Syracuse lost to Boston College in basketball last night. That’s shocking enough in and of itself.
But now consider this: An undefeated Syracuse team ranked first in the nation lost at home to a 6-19 Boston College team that was previously 2-10 in the ACC. Now it’s an all-out stunner.
So how does an upset like that happen? I’d argue the only reason is because Syracuse was undefeated.
Yes, that means I don’t believe Boston College would have won the game had the Orange been 24-1 heading into it. I also understand it minimizes the obvious emotional effect of the Eagles playing the game in honor and memory of beloved basketball SID Dick Kelley, who died last week after a long bout with Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
This whole theory seems ridiculous, but going unbeaten doesn’t happen. The 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers are the last team to go all the way through a season without a loss. That was 38 seasons ago.
UNLV got to the Final Four without losing in 1990-91. St. Joseph’s lost its first game in the Atlantic 10 Tournament’s second round during the 2003-04 season. The 2004-05 Illinois squad coached by Bill Self lost at Ohio State on Senior Night—the final game of the regular season.
Other than that, no team has come very close to achieving perfection, and I’ve come up with a list of six reasons why:
1. The cumulative effect of the season. Each team plays 30 games. The season begins in November and continues through Christmas break into the middle of March. There is plenty of time for one off night to cost a team a victory under the right circumstances.
2. Teams generally play tougher games late in the season. Conference play normally provides a stiffer test night in and night out. For the nation’s only unbeaten team remaining—Wichita State—it’s actually gotten easier since the calendar flipped to 2014. But that’s the exception rather than the rule. The average RPI for Syracuse’s February and March opponents this season is 69. The previous three months were 115, 124, and 160, respectively. Things get tougher later.
3. Pressure builds. The media no longer talks about individual games. The conversation, instead, is about the big picture—at least when the opponent is negligible (like, say, BOSTON COLLEGE). As the narrative shifts, as the media widens its focus, as the questions pour in about things weeks into the future, it’s hard for student-athletes to maintain a steely focus on the task at hand. Looking ahead is disastrous.
4. Injuries affect the structure. This has nothing to do with Syracuse, but it did contribute to Arizona’s fall from the ranks of the unbeaten. Forward Brandon Ashley hurt his foot, which removed 12 points and 6.5 rebounds a game from the rotation. Shortly thereafter, the Wildcats lost for the first time. Not having a key contributor is a death sentence for unbeatens.
5. Every road game is a challenge. Most high-major teams’ nonconference schedules look like this: a ton of home games, a few neutral-site holiday tournament tilts, and the occasional road test. That changes during conference play, when each team has to play the same number of road games. In the ACC, that number is nine. The advantages toward home teams are well documented, so it’s feasible that a team could simply walk into an unfriendly environment one night.
6. Sometimes you’re lucky, and sometimes you’re not. Luck is an actual statistic. It’s calculated as the difference between actual results and expected results based on some efficiency numbers. But luck also happens within the realm of a single game that has nothing to do with basketball. Tyler Ennis hits a half-court shot at Pittsburgh. The officials misdiagnose a shooting foul as a non-shooting one. That was how Syracuse won its last two games prior to BC. Simply put, the Orange’s luck ran out.
Obviously all of these aren’t applicable across the board. Some are more present in certain situations. Either way, there’s only one unbeaten team left, but Wichita appears ripe for the picking. We’ll have to wait and see which one of these six is the Shockers’ downfall.