How Much Impact Do Lengthy COVID-19 Pauses Have on Men's College Hoops Teams?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 22, 2021

Villanova's Collin Gillespie
Villanova's Collin GillespieLaurence Kesterson/Associated Press

On Tuesday night, the Villanova's men's basketball team played a game for the first time in 27 days after multiple COVID-19-related pauses.

We had no clue what to expect from the Wildcats after such a lengthy gap, but they looked quite normal in their 76-74 victory over Seton Hall.

Before their pause, they were averaging 7.8 turnovers and 10.3 made threes per game while shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. They had eight and nine, respectively, against the Pirates and shot 40.9 percent from three. And Villanova wasted no time in reminding us how much it loves threes, making five of them within the first seven minutes.

So much for the theory that the Wildcats probably accumulated some rust.

It got me thinking, though: How did Villanova's performance compare to those of other teams that endured long pauses?

Was it unusual for the Wildcats to immediately defeat a competent opponent, or has it been normal for teams to more or less pick up right where they left off?

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Enough of these situations have occurred that we can point to some data instead of just assuming teams will likely struggle to find their usual rhythm in their first game back, right?

Villanova's 27-day hiatus was one of the longest that any team has gone through, but it wasn't the first team to miss at least two weeks of action. In fact, I combed through the top 100 teams on KenPom.com on Tuesday night and found 28 that had either a 14-day break between games or didn't play their first contest of the season until at least Dec. 8.

Of those 28 teams, 16* returned to the court with a game against a fellow top-100 opponent.

Those are the 16 teams we'll look at.

Was Villanova's post-hiatus performance an outlier?
Was Villanova's post-hiatus performance an outlier?Laurence Kesterson/Associated Press

(Just to be clear, that isn't some data manipulation trick in which I'm disregarding a bunch of teams that played poorly against subpar competition. The other 12 teams went 11-1, and the lone loss was an expected one when then-No. 111 Bradley lost at then-No. 121 Northern Iowa. I just don't feel results like Houston's 33-point win over Alcorn State, Virginia's 36-point win over William & Mary or South Dakota State's 43-point victory over Mount Marty need to be a part of this data set.)

Those 16 teams went 6-10 in their first game back, but save for one exception, those were the expected results.

After BYU's 15-day break, KenPom had it projected to lose by 17 at Gonzaga. The Cougars, in fact, lost by 17.

After Memphis' 19-day break, KenPom had it projected to lose by one point at Tulsa. The Tigers, in fact, lost by one.

Not every game went as anticipated, of course. Louisville was supposed to lose by four at Wisconsin in its first game in 18 days, but the Cardinals were demolished by 37. (Louisville's star point guard, Carlik Jones, missed that game, for what it's worth.) Conversely, Florida State was only supposed to beat NC State by four when the Seminoles played their first game in 15 days, yet they won by 32.

By and large, though, the actual margin was within nine points of the expected margin, and the actual winner was the expected winner.

The one exception? That happened when Pittsburgh's 15-day hiatus ended on the road against Syracuse—which was ending an 18-day break of its own. Syracuse was supposed to win by eight and led by as many as 16 points in the second half only to watch the Panthers close the game on a 30-11 run for a three-point win.

The only other semi-significant outlier was when Duke returned from 21 days away from the court to eke out a one-point home win over Boston College. KenPom had the Blue Devils projected to win by 13. KenPom also had Duke rated as the 12th-best team in the country at that point, which it very clearly is not.

In case you hadn't already figured it out when Gonzaga came back from 17 days off and easily handled Iowaprojected No. 1 seed, mind youthis data suggests that a lengthy COVID-19 pause does not have a discernible impact on a team's ability to score.

Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs made seven three-pointers in the team's first game back from a COVID-19 pause.
Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs made seven three-pointers in the team's first game back from a COVID-19 pause.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press/Associated Press

If we temporarily remove the Pitt-Syracuse gamesince that was a double-pause situation and since Pitt's star big man, Justin Champagnie, was out with a knee injurythat leaves us with 14 games. KenPom's cumulative projected point total for the 14 teams returning from pause was 1,008. Their actual point total was 1,010.

There's no definitive commonality in when those points are scored, either.

Three of the 14 teams scored 10 or fewer points in the first 10 minutes, but five scored at least 21 points in the "first quarter." Some heated up as the game progressed and finished strong, while others seemed to run out of gas in the final 10 minutes.

Normal stuff, really. So if anyone tries to tell you that a team that's coming back from a COVID-19 pause will probably struggle to find its jumper early or that it will likely miss shots late because of tired legs, kindly ask them to do a little research.

Where we do see potential impact from the pauses, though, is on the defensive end, where those 14 teams allowed a combined total of 54 more points than projected.

That's not a massive difference. It's under four points per game. But anyone who had the foresight to bet the over in these situations is up quite a few units.

And that difference makes sense. During a pause, the players who aren't experiencing symptoms are still able to get up their daily quota of socially distanced shots and stay in a rhythm. However, minor defensive miscommunications are liable to arise during a several-week hiatus from practice.

Even if you don't bet on games, I'm guessing you fill out a bracket every March, and that's the main reason I wanted to look at this data.

It's almost inevitable that some team—possibly multiple teams, given the way things have gone—will enter the NCAA tournament fresh off a COVID-19 pause. If it's a No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed, people will absolutely freak out about whether it's safe to pick that team to win a single game, let alone reach the Final Four.

When that time comes, take a deep breath and try to remember Gonzaga's win over Iowa, Florida State's destruction of NC State, Tennessee's season-opening victory over a solid Colorado team and, yes, Villanova's win over Seton Hall after almost an entire month away from the court.

That time off doesn't appear to have had a profoundly negative impact on the majority of tournament-caliber teams.

*There was also a 17th case on Wednesday night in which Georgia Tech returned from a 17-day break with a shocking 18-point win over Clemson. Rather than redoing all the math to factor that game into the numbers above, I'll just mention it here as further support of the hypothesis that most teams can bounce back from these pauses without missing a beat. 

           

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