What's Up with All the Early Upsets in Men's College Basketball?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 10, 2020

Virginia's loss to San Francisco was the first of several head-scratchers in this young season.
Virginia's loss to San Francisco was the first of several head-scratchers in this young season.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

If your main takeaway from the first two weeks of the 2020-21 men's college basketball season is that it feels like there have been more colossal upsets than usual, you're absolutely right.

Barely 48 hours after the regular season began, AP No. 4 Virginia lost to unranked San Francisco. The following night, No. 3 Villanova lost to unranked Virginia Tech. And after Wisconsin climbed up to No. 4 in the subsequent AP poll, the Badgers lost to unranked Marquette.

That's three unranked-over-Top Five upsets fewer than 10 days into the season, and that is simply staggering, even in a sport where we are constantly reminded to expect the unexpected.

We see upsets of this magnitude pretty regularly during conference play but rarely this early in the nonconference portion of the season.

Two years ago, there were no such losses until January. In 2010-11, 2012-13 and 2013-14, more than two months passed before there were three such losses. Even last year with the early hysterics of Kentucky losing to Evansville and Duke losing to Stephen F. Austin, we at least made it a week without any shockers and three weeks before the third one.

The word "unprecedented" has lost all meaning in the past nine months, but this poor start by the supposed best teams in the country truly is unprecedented. And we haven't even mentioned Kentucky's three-game losing streak, Duke looking kind of terrible or the close calls that Top Eight teams Illinois, Kansas and Michigan State had at home against unranked Ohio, North Dakota State and Detroit, respectively.

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So, what's going on here?

Was it just a few early cases of teams drawing lesser opponents who matched up just well enough against them to eke out victories?

Is the lack of fans in the stands causing problems for big-name programs that are accustomed to playing in front of raucous crowds?

Has the pandemic-induced scheduling chaos made it more challenging to prepare for opponents?

Is this an inescapable byproduct of an impossibly weird offseason devoid of the normal supply of team camps, workouts, secret scrimmages and exhibition games? 

It's probably a combination of all four, and the latter two don't figure to get any better with age. Postponed games and programs going on pause will cause disruptions to routines all season long.

But let's look back at each of the massive upsets and significant close calls to get a sense of what went wrong.


Upset A: San Francisco 61, No. 4 Virginia 60

San Francisco's Jamaree Bouyea
San Francisco's Jamaree BouyeaJessica Hill/Associated Press

We've known for a long time that the best formula for beating Virginia's pack-line defense is constant ball movement and taking and making a lot of three-pointers. Trying to drive the lane and score in the paint against the Cavaliers is about as easy as trying to play beer pong in a swarm of bees, but you can get some looks from the perimeter if you're committed to the deep game.

And San Francisco shoots threes just about as aggressively as any team in the country. Through six games, the Dons have averaged 30.7 attempts and 11.2 makes. They were a little more efficient than that in the win over Virginia, making 13 of their 28 tries.

The problem here wasn't San Francisco's 61, though. It was Virginia's 60.

We saw these dreadful offensive efforts from Virginia far too many times last year. But already between this loss and going to overtime against Kent State tied at 62, it's apparent that things have not gotten any better. Marquette transfer Sam Hauser has been a big help thus far, but the lack of a go-to scoring guard a la Justin Anderson, Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome is going to be a problem for the second straight year.

On the scheduling chaos front, though, Virginia didn't know about this game until about 66 hours before it was played. The Cavaliers went to "Bubbleville" with plans of facing Maine and Florida, only to find out Tuesday that they would instead be drawing Towson on Wednesday and San Francisco on Friday.

Can't imagine Tony Bennett and his coaching staff got to watch much tape on the Dons, but that hardly justifies losing to a team that had lost to UMass Lowell just two days prior. For them to also struggle with Kent State a week later speaks volumes to how far below expectations this team is right now.


Upset B: Virginia Tech 81, No. 3 Villanova 73 (OT)

This one also involves scheduling chaos, though it's a much more legitimate excuse for Villanova than for Virginia.

Villanova was also in "Bubbleville" for the Empire Classic, where it expected to play Boston College followed by the Baylor-Arizona State winner. Most everyone was anticipating Baylor in that second game until the Bears had to cancel and were replaced by Rhode Island. But the Wildcats won close games against Boston College and Arizona State on Wednesday and Thursday of Thanksgiving week.

That was supposed to be the end of their time in Uncasville, Connecticut, but they instead decided Friday morning to stick around for a Saturday night game against Virginia Tech.

That turned out to be a poor decision, because Virginia Techwhich had merely played one light-work game against Radford on Wednesdaylooked fresh while the Wildcats were clearly gassed by the end of that third game in 72 hours against major-conference opponents. After taking a 52-40 lead with fewer than nine minutes remaining in the second half, Villanova was outscored 41-21 the rest of the way. 

Considering Villanova bounced back with an impressive road win over Texas on Dec. 6, it doesn't seem like there's much to worry about here. Just a tough closing stretch to a game for an exhausted team. And it was a result that vaulted Virginia Tech all the way to No. 16 in the subsequent AP poll.


Upset C: Marquette 67, No. 4 Wisconsin 65

This one barely even qualifies as an upset.

For Wisconsin, it was a road game in an annual rivalry. When the Badgers last played at Marquette in 2018, they were ranked No. 12 and lost to the unranked Golden Eagles in overtime in a game during which neither team ever led by more than six points.

This game was pretty much a carbon copy of that one, only with significantly less star power now that Ethan Happ and Markus Howard are out of the picture. The game ended on a tip-in of a missed free throw as time expired.

If you're looking to blame this result on anything other than just common fare in an in-state rivalry, one of Wisconsin's senior leaders, Brad Davison, fouled out after playing just 18 minutes. Without his peskiness on defense, the Badgers weren't operating at full strength.

Wisconsin should be more than fine in the long run. It has five seniors in the starting lineup, each of whom has legitimate three-point range. It's tough to say this early if the Badgers' ceiling is quite as high as it was in 2013-14 and 2014-15 with Frank the Tank leading the way, but this team is strong on defense and impressively versatile on offense. The loss to Marquette will likely go down as a not-that-surprising outlier.


Close Call A: No. 8 Illinois 77, Ohio 75

Ohio's Jason Preston almost outdueled Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu
Ohio's Jason Preston almost outdueled Illinois' Ayo DosunmuHolly Hart/Associated Press/Associated Press

Ohio point guard Jason Preston played out of his mind in this one, finishing with 31 points, eight assists, six rebounds and no turnovers. And while he was playing turnover-free ball, Illinois was quite sloppy, giving it away 16 times.

That turnover margin has already become a concerning trend for the Illini, as they have committed more turnovers than they have forced in all five games played.

They were able to get away with it against Duke because they drastically out-shot the Blue Devils from three-point range. However, turnovers played a key role in the loss to Baylor, as a 39-37 lead turned into a 72-56 deficit in a hurry.

This was a significant issue for them early on last year, too, but the good news is they eventually snapped out of it. The Illini averaged 15.2 turnovers in their first 12 games, committing at least a dozen in 11 of those contests. Over their final 19 games, though, that number plummeted to 9.2. It could be a similar situation this season once the game starts to slow down for freshman point guard Andre Curbelo, who is averaging 7.4 turnovers per 40 minutes.

Something to keep a close eye on in the upcoming games against Missouri, Minnesota and Rutgers.


Close Call B: No. 8 Michigan State 83, Detroit 76

My only theory here is that Michigan State was feeling too good about itself three days after a road win over Duke, and it didn't take Detroit seriously.

Which is kind of fair. Detroit was playing its first game of the season after going 35-90 over the past four years. Despite having a legitimate NBA prospect in Antoine Davis, the Titans have been quite bad for some time.

Davis didn't even play that well, though. Or at least not that efficiently. He scored 24 points, but it took him 26 field-goal attempts to get there.

Michigan State simply struggled against a low-tier Horizon League team, losing the turnover battle and practically playing to a draw in the rebounding department. Detroit led 62-58 at the under-8:00 media timeout and had the ball with a chance to either tie or take the lead with a little over a minute to go. The final margin doesn't tell the whole story of how close the Spartans came to losing this game.

Backcourt veteran Joshua Langford didn't play, but that's no excuse for MSU's effort in this one.


Close Call C: No. 7 Kansas 65, North Dakota State 61

Kansas' Jalen Wilson
Kansas' Jalen WilsonCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

This one might be even more confounding than the actual upsets.

North Dakota State had to replace four of its six leading scorers from last year's 25-8 team, including stars Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward. And thus far, it has understandably been a struggle. The Bison lost each of their first three games against Nevada, Nebraska and Creighton by double digits.

Then, out of nowhere, North Dakota State almost became the first unranked non-Big 12 team to win at Phog Allen Fieldhouse since the Oral Roberts stunner in the first week of the 2006-07 season.

Despite not getting a particularly strong performance from anyone, the Bison led for most of the game and held a 61-58 lead with a little under four minutes remaining. If they hadn't missed all seven of their shots after that point, they might have pulled this off.

Maybe Kansas got caught peeking ahead to the game against Creighton three days later. Or perhaps there are just going to be days like this for a team whose best player (Marcus Garrett) is primarily renowned for his defense.

The Jayhawks do have a budding star in Jalen Wilson. After playing just two minutes last season, the redshirt freshman had identical lines of 23 points and 10 rebounds in the wins over Kentucky and Creighton. But he struggled from the field (5-of-15) against North Dakota State, and no one really picked up the slack.

Kansas is still figuring out what works and what doesn't. David McCormack hasn't had the breakout year in the paint that the Jayhawks were hoping for, so there has been quite a bit of small-ball with Wilson (an inexperienced 6'8" forward) at the 5 surrounded by a bunch of 6'5" and 6'6" guards. That's a significant adjustment from last year when Udoka Azubuike was a force of nature in the paint on both ends of the floor.

At least the Jayhawks are gutting out wins and have a 5-1 record while they work through the early kinks...


Duke and Kentucky

Kentucky head coach John Calipari
Kentucky head coach John CalipariDarron Cummings/Associated Press

These usual juggernauts are broken, and I have to believe this is our clearest example of the impact COVID-19 has had on this year's product.

Duke is 2-2 and looked just plain bad (especially from three-point range) against Michigan State and Illinois. Kentucky is 1-3 and has twice lost by double digits to unranked opponents, Richmond and Georgia Tech.

Keion Brooks (calf) still has not played in a game this season, which means Kentucky has had to replace 100 percent of its scoring from last year. Duke's reloading project wasn't quite that dire, but the Blue Devils did lose all three of their leading scorers, as well as key reserves Alex O'Connell, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White and Justin Robinson.

This is par for the course for these two programs. Duke and Kentucky lose around 80 percent of their scoring almost every year and still open every season as one of the top candidates to win the national championship.

But as we near the end of a calendar year that has been anything but normal, these blue-blood teams actually look like a bunch of inexperienced kids who had limited opportunity to get acclimated to their teammates and their system.

Wendell Moore was supposed to be one of Duke's go-to guys as a returning sophomore, but he is 1-of-19 from the field over the last three games and has already been removed from the starting lineup. Similarly, Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr was supposed to be the savior of Kentucky's frontcourt and the most noteworthy transfer in the nation, but he has been foul-prone and just looks soft compared to what we're accustomed to seeing in the paint for the Wildcats.

Maybe those elder leaders will turn a corner, the rotations will begin to jell and the 5-star freshmen will look more like they usually do in these programs. For the time being, though, neither Duke nor Kentucky seems to have any clue what it's doing.


Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.