The big story in college basketball last week was the 81-73 win that a scrappy Providence team posted over No. 1 Pittsburgh in Providence. Anytime a No. 1 loses it's a big story-and this season, goodness knows, has seen multiple instances of this particular big story. Fans rush the court, the rankings shift, and we all reassess our opinion of the No. 1 team. Were they really that good to begin with? Were they exposed in this game?
This was obviously a huge win for Providence. The question is: was it an "uh-oh" loss for Pitt? Maybe not. I've alluded to this previously, but the Panthers are in some pretty illustrious company when it comes to this kind of thing. Each of the last two national champions, Florida in 2007 and Kansas in 2008, lost road games in late February. In fact, the Gators and Jayhawks lost to teams (LSU and Oklahoma State, respectively) that didn't even make the NCAA tournament. Granted, if Pitt had started losing every game after their loss to the Friars, you could have pointed back to the Providence game and say it started the slide. Based on what we know so far, however, this game doesn't constitute a true "uh-oh" loss for the Panthers. Recent national champions have shown you can go all the way with a February hiccup in your momentum.
Speaking of momentum, let's take a look at that. We know that any national champion will of course end their season having won six games in a row. What about their performance leading into the NCAA tournament? Just how important is it to come into the tournament "on a run"?
It's nice to have momentum, certainly, but it's certainly not essential. National champions since 2000 have on average been riding about a three-game winning streak when they enter the NCAA tournament.
Not All National Champions Need "Big Mo"
Consecutive games won leading into NCAA tournament
Team, Year Win Streak
Kansas, 2008 7
Florida, 2007 4
Florida, 2006 5
North Carolina, 2005 0
Connecticut, 2004 3
Syracuse, 2003 0
Maryland, 2002 0
Duke, 2001 5
Michigan State, 2000 5
No national champion in this decade has had more momentum than Kansas had last year, an ironic distinction given the doubts the Jayhawks triggered when they lost by one at Oklahoma State on February 23, 2008. (I remember seeing mock brackets that gave KU's one-seed in the NCAA tournament to Texas at that point.) Conversely, three of the last nine national champs have cut down the nets at the Final Four without having done so at their conference tournaments: Maryland in 2002, Syracuse in 2003, and, most recently, North Carolina in 2005.
The bottom line is that it's possible to win it all in April without winning your conference tournament in March, but in recent years the odds have indeed tilted toward the national champion being a team that also holds their league's automatic bid. This makes sense when you reflect on the nature of conference tournaments. I know they may seem slightly artificial, what with their split crowds and everyone playing on consecutive days. Once in a while a huge underdog, such as Georgia last year, even wins four games in four days and takes the conference's automatic bid.
Then again the NCAA tournament's not so very different. In both cases the games are played (at least in the major-conference tournaments) at neutral sites. In both cases every game's an elimination game. We probably shouldn't be too surprised to find that a team that's good at one is also good at the other. If your team loses in their conference tournament, that holds higher potential for an "uh-oh" loss than if they drop a close game on the road to an opponent who's at least respectable.
About those road games: They can be a great measure of a team's March potential. In our book, College Basketball Prospectus 2008-2009, my co-author Ken Pomeroy looked closely at instances in the past five years where conference opponents played two games against each other, with each team getting a home date and an away game. What Ken found was that home wins, even by very large margins, don't necessarily tell us a lot about the team that recorded the win. In the time period that Ken studied, teams that won a home game by between 10-19 points won the road game against that same opponent just 51 percent of the time. In fact even home teams that won by blowout margins, between 20 and 29 points, won the road game just 58 percent of the time.
Ken's work reinforces what we all understand anytime we see the Cameron Crazies making life miserable for the visiting ream: winning a road game is really difficult, even for the most elite teams. (Look no further than your 2009 Big Ten champions, Michigan State. Tuesday night they played 6-22 Indiana in Bloomington-and won by just five points.) The challenge of winning on the road is a big reason why no major-conference team has posted an undefeated conference record since Kentucky did it in 2003.
So unless your team is dropping multiple road games by big margins to teams at the bottom of the conference standings, there's little reason to panic over a single road loss, such as Pitt's eight-point loss at Providence. On the other hand, you certainly don't want to see your team lose at home by a big margin, particularly not late in the year, definitely not to a struggling opponent. That might be a good time to start running around screaming with your hands above your head, if such is your preferred panic style.
In other words, if Wisconsin loses to Indiana by 23 this Sunday in Madison, it is definitely time for Badger fans, if they're still standing, to repeat after me: "Uh-oh."
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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