Wichita State is going to cause so much sportswriting nonsense that it will be either delicious or disgusting, depending on how tightly you are wound. I choose to go with finding humor in it. Pat Forde has contributed to my enjoyment with this piece, arguing that Wichita State, yep, you guessed it, just needs to lose a game this weekend and it would be better for them.
This is a vastly underrated trope that deserves top billing in the Sports Writing Hall of Shame. Can one learn from a defeat? Absolutely. My ten year old has learned a lot from close losses this year in basketball, finishing games, how every play could be the one that matters, and how much better it feels to win. I would hope those lessons would be learned long before a team is poised to be among the best in the nation.
Still, I think it merits going through this line of thinking, and debunking it. The thought process, I suppose, is apparently that losing helps a team. This is post-result confirmation bias. To make his point, Forde tells you “[i]n fact, history tells us a defeat in March for a red-hot team can help when the NCAA tourney starts.” By history, he means an incomplete look at it, and cherry picking examples that could, I suppose, support it if you wanted to be selective.
He points to Kentucky (a team that already had two losses but a 24 =-game winning streak) and how a loss in the SEC championship game set them up for a run to the title. Maybe. Or maybe, you know, they were good enough to win 24 straight games, and also won six straight. He also mentions the 2005 Illinois team, that lost in the season finale to Ohio State, before reaching the title game. He brings up St. Joseph’s, attributing their ability to reach an Elite Eight as a #1 seed to somehow losing in the A-10 tournament.
So what of those teams that were fortunate enough to be national contenders, but have one loss? Since 1979, when the NCAA began formally designating #1 seeds, we have had two that were undefeated: Indiana State in 1979 and UNLV in 1991. There have been 13 #1 seeds who had exactly one loss entering the tournament. None of them have won it. Here are the results (all data from sports-reference.com/cbb):
Only five of the 13 reached the Final Four, a below average result for a top seed. If we just go by the latest to lose in a season – those that the Fordes of the world would have been writing about needing a loss to relieve the pressure – we get the following: DePaul in 1980 to Notre Dame in next to last game, Oregon State in 1981 in final game to Arizona State, Stanford in 2004 in final regular season game to Washington, St. Joseph’s in 2004 to Xavier in the A-10 Tournament, and Illinois in 2005 to Ohio State.
Forde, of course, cited the one example out of those five late losses to end undefeated runs that justified his ridiculous point. Three of the five teams that lost a game and got that pressure off their back at the end of the year turned around and lost to an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A loss, as it turned out, was not a wake up call but a warning sign.
Of course, we don’t have to go back that far in history. We could also talk about the other team that just needed a loss – Syracuse – and whether said loss helped them. The Orangemen were the next to last undefeated team this year. They were starting to win close games and not play as well. They needed a loss to wake them up. They now have four in two weeks. They must really have that pressure off now.
Wichita State does not need to lose (nor would they get a #1 seed if they do). A loss to a vastly inferior opponent who would not otherwise be in the NCAA Tournament would be cause for concern, not cause for celebration. They will have plenty of pressure on them, just like all top seeds with high expectations.
Related: Breaking Down the No. 1 Seed Possibilities, Arizona, Florida, and then Lots of Teams in Play
Related: Brent Musburger Has Plenty of Interesting Thoughts on Gambling, Lotteries, Fantasy Football, and March Madness