ESPN and the upset narrative

We hate college basketball top-25 polls.  We know they're meaningless. We know that there are better ways to evaluate teams. And yet, we allow those polls to shape our understanding of the college basketball landscape.

Every week some insane college basketball writer puts up a ballot that makes absolutely no logical sense. The voter is a homer and he ranks his own team way too high (or an anti-homer and yes I'm talking about you John Feinstein), or the voter votes purely on record regardless of opponents. And people make fun of that voter. And then people make fun of the person making fun of that voter because polls don't matter.

And then Butler gets upset by LaSalle.

At the beginning of the season I began an experiment, only I had no idea what the experiment was. I followed the ESPN College Basketball twitter account, which is an account completely devoid of insight. They tweet things like this:


I set up a special column on Tweetdeck just to follow this one account (and later expanded it to include @JonRothstein). Shortly into the season I began to notice that the ESPN College Basketball twitter account is really into upsets. I mean really. If there is a potential upset occuring on an ESPN channel, you're going to hear about it.

Only, a lot of the times, they weren't actually upsets. So I began re-tweeting those. And a few other people jumped in as well. If ESPN tweeted that Team X was about to upset Team Y, I'd re-tweet it with a note that Team Y was favored by 1.5 points.

Hoops fans generally liked these tweets, and others began to join in so that I didn't even really need to track the account anymore because someone would let me know. Even the ESPN account took notice.

The problem came when I began to point out real upsets. When a ranked team was the underdog against an unranked team, I made sure to comment. Sure enough, fans began to respond. Angrily. Pointing out that I wouldn't know a basketball if I sat on it. Their team was the better team! I'd point out the Vegas line – point out that a game in which one team (the unranked one) was given a 65% of winning wasn't an upset when that team, in fact, won.

Upsets are simple. When one team is favored to win and they lose, that is an upset. It's not necessarily an upset when No. 16 loses to an unranked team. Lots of unranked teams are better than ranked teams.

LaSalle, as Josh pointed out last night, was the favorite. They were 2.5 point favorites to be exact – meaning that if you bet on them, you lost, because Butler covered the spread (it was a 54-53 game). So in a way it was an upset. LaSalle won by less than the margin which was predicted.

Polls are stupid. Long live the polls.