Why are there so many exceptionally challenged teams in 2016?



This week John Beilein was asked about his team’s next opponent, and he came up with a small masterpiece of backhanded complimenting.


Beilein’s brand of faint praise reminded me of how former Illinois coach Lou Henson used to respond in similar situations. When I was a kid my brother and I had a running joke involving Henson’s preferred verbal tic, “super ball club.” We’d take turns inserting the most absurd opponent imaginable and mimicking Henson’s flat New Mexican twang: “Well, Jim, Immaculate Heart of Mary is just a super ball club, and we’re going to have to play our best game to win.”

Still, Beilein’s ringing endorsement of his next opponent’s Division I status weirdly paralleled some thoughts I’ve had regarding exceptionally challenged teams. For starters I’ve often wondered how ECT’s happen at all. It seems like if you squint hard enough and keep things good and abstract, such teams should be all but impossible.

Imagine a pool of three thousand or so D-I players. Everything we think we know about talent and performance suggests that the difference between Ben Simmons or Buddy Hield and the No. 20 player in the country is huge. More importantly that difference is much larger than the difference between Nos. 20 and 40, which, in turn is much larger than the difference between Nos. 40 and 60, and so on all the way down the line.

By the time you get to player No. 1,000 much less 2,000 or 3,000, you’re almost certainly gliding along one really smooth and shallow performance curve. There just can’t be enough difference in personnel ability to explain the differences we see in team performance, can there? It seems like something else must be at work.

Nor am I certain that injuries or youth can explain 100 percent of exceptionally challenged status. Injuries and youth are constants across every D-I season, occurring, one would surmise, with more or less uniform frequency. Yet it is only once in a very great while that we see a team that falls off a cliff performance-wise.

I suspect a good deal of this phenomenon comes down to conference fit and the kindness of strangers. Be that as it may in the eight seasons prior to this year, I saw just two teams that were outscored by 0.30 points or more on every trip down the floor: Oregon State in 2008, and San Jose State last season. So the fact that there are no less than three teams on pace to do so this season is highly unusual. No wonder Beilein was tongue-tied….

Rutgers (-0.35)
Bradley (-0.33)
Boston College (-0.30)

The presence of ECT’s is of course a statistical gift for opponents, particularly in January when a game or even two games against such a team can represent a large slice of your record to date. Here are some teams that look great in Tuesday Truths in part because of the ECT inflation factor:

Notre Dame
Taking away the two games the Irish have played against BC doesn’t change the numbers for this extraordinary offense one bit — but it does alter the math for Mike Brey’s defense. In five games played against ACC opponents not named Boston College, ND has both scored and allowed 1.22 points per trip.

Subtract the Boilermakers’ 50-point win over Rutgers, and their efficiency margin in Big Ten play shrinks from +0.13 all the way down to +0.03.

Wichita State
The Shockers are the only team in the Valley that’s already played Bradley twice. Then again the fact that WSU’s outscoring the rest of the league by 0.26 points per trip suggests that the numbers won’t fall too far for Gregg Marshall’s team. For my money I think it probable that: a) January-version Wichita State’s received a measurable statistical boost from fate and the schedule maker; and b) Marshall’s guys are better than people realize. These two possibilities are not antithetical.

Now the good news for exceptionally challenged teams. Over the past decade no program has attainted ECT status (defined as -0.25 or worse) more than once. It appears to be something extraneous that happens to at-risk programs and then steals away in the night to blight someone else’s home floor. Stay strong, this too shall pass.