Is This the Craziest College Basketball Season Ever?

Kevin Rudy 15 February, 2013

The last few weeks have been pretty crazy in college basketball. In the first 13 days of February, nine different teams ranked in the Top 10 have lost. And had Duke not squeaked by Boston College last Sunday, it would have been the first time since 1992 that every team ranked in the AP Top 5 had lost in a single week. 

All of this has led to analysts saying that the parity in college basketball is greater than it’s ever been. And while it might seem that way, it’s always best to perform a data analysis to confirm whether your claims are true. Have there really been more Top 10 upsets this year than in previous years? Let’s turn to the data to answer our question!

First, I’ll use Minitab to tally the number of Top 10 upsets that have occurred each year over the last 7 seasons. I used the same time period for each year, Feb. 1 to Feb. 13. There were a few occurrences where two teams ranked in the Top 10 played each other. In these cases, I only counted it as an upset if the team that lost was ranked higher and was playing at home. You can download a Minitab worksheet with all the data in it here.

Upsets per year

We see that having 9 upsets in the first two weeks of February isn’t all that crazy. Sure, it’s the most since 2007, but every other year has only 2 or 3 fewer upsets. So this year really isn’t so different than previous seasons. Also, keep in mind the time period is biased towards this season since I specifically picked it because there have been a high number of upsets.

But let’s not stop there! All of the upsets this year came to unranked teams. Can that be said of any other year?

Losses to ranked and unranked teams

The statistics start looking a little crazier here, as no other year has more Top 10 teams losing to unranked teams than 2013. However, each year does have at least half of their upsets coming to unranked teams. What's more, we’re missing some information here. Specifically, did the team that got upset play on the road, or at home?

Losses at home

We see that 8 of the 9 upsets that have happened this month have been when the Top 10 team was playing on the road. Compare that to 2012, when a Top 10 team was upset at home 6 times in the beginning of February!  Because of home court advantage, I’d argue that six Top 10 teams losing at home in a two-week span is crazier than eight Top 10 teams losing on the road. When you add in the fact that every year since 2007 has had more Top 10 teams lose at home than this year, 2013 really doesn’t appear to be crazier.

Let’s look at one more thing. This year, 6 of the 9 upsets have occurred to teams in the Top 5 (not just the Top 10). So let’s look at the average rank of the teams that got upset for each year:

Average rank

This season, the upsets have involved higher-ranked teams than in previous years. But the difference isn’t very big. And we’ve already shown that most of those upsets have found the Top 10 team playing on the road, which lessens the craziness.

So what is all the fuss about then? I think the reason this year has gotten so much attention is the way the upsets have happened. Layups at the buzzer, half court shots to send the game to overtime, and the 5th-ranked team getting beat by arguably the worst team in a BCS conference. It’s true that upsets happen every year, but they don’t always have the dramatics that we’ve seen recently.

So yes, there have been a lot of upsets recently, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this season is any different from the recent past. Because when you look at the data, you’ll realize it’s like this every basketball season!