Is College Basketball Really Crazier Than Usual This Year?

The upset narrative is strong this year in college hoops, but do the numbers back it up?
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The narrative around men’s college basketball this season is that it’s at a level of chaos unheard of in recent years, with upsets galore and teams changing hands near the top of the rankings weekly.

This past week alone, AP top-five teams lost six times (two each by Duke, Butler and Auburn)—the most in one week since 1994, the ESPN broadcast announced after No. 11 Louisville added to the carnage by beating No. 3 Duke in Durham. While things have definitely been wild, has 2019-20 truly been more upset-crazy than usual?

Clemson basketball

Using Sports-Reference.com’s Play Index tool, we took a closer look at the numbers to find out.

This season, through nearly 11 full weeks, there have been 14 AP top-five teams that have lost to unranked opponents, and 64 AP top-25 teams have lost to unranked opponents.

Over the full course of last season (minus the NCAA tournament), 115 ranked teams lost to unranked opponents. Ranked teams won at an 82.1% clip when facing an unranked foe, which is actually ever-so-slightly lower than this year’s current 82.8% clip.

Let’s compare this year’s current mark to the last five seasons (all data excludes NCAA tournament games):

Performance of AP Top 25 Teams vs. Unranked Opponents

SeasonNumber of WinsNumber of LossesWin Rate

2019-20*

309

64

82.8%

2018-19

529

115

82.1%

2017-18

533

140

79.2%

2016-17

541

92

85.5%

2015-16

499

131

79.2%

2014-15

536

111

82.8%

*through games of Sunday, Jan. 19

What does this data mean? It means top-25 ranked teams aren’t currently falling to unranked opponents more than usual—in fact, only the 2016-17 season saw a higher percentage of ranked teams win those games than this season is at right now. This year’s current 82.8% winning clip is pretty much exactly in line with what you’d expect in a recent college basketball season.

Three weeks into January in the 2017-18 season, 70 AP ranked teams had lost to unranked foes. Three weeks into January in the 2015-16 season, 66 had lost. This season, at the same point? 64 have.

What about at the top, though? Top-25 upsets to unranked opponents might not be happening more often than usual, but what about top-five teams losing to unranked opponents—something that’s happened 14 times already in 2019-20?

That depends which season you compare it to. Last season, for example, a top-five team lost to an unranked opponent just six times all season. This year has already more than doubled that mark. In 2017-18, though, it happened 25 times before the NCAA tournament. In 2015-16, it happened 23 times. This year’s total obviously isn’t complete yet, with two months of action left before the Big Dance. So let’s once again look at percentages:

Performance of AP Top-Five Teams Against Unranked Opponents

SeasonNumber of WinsNumber of LossesWin Rate

2019-20*

59

14

80.8%

2018-19

117

6

95.1%

2017-18

111

25

81.6%

2016-17

115

10

92.0%

2015-16

107

23

82.3%

2014-15

131

7

95.0%

*through games of Sunday, Jan. 19

So no, when it comes to this, your feelings don't deceive you: AP top-five teams are getting upset by unranked foes at a higher rate than any of the previous five seasons, and at an especially higher rate compared to last season, when the top-five team won a whopping 95% of the time. However, 2019-20's 80.8% win rate isn't out of line with 2017-18 or 2015-16, two recent seasons that were also upset-heavy, and, as seen above, actually had top-25 teams getting upset against unranked opponents at a higher rate than where 2019-20 is currently at.

Statistically, it remains to be seen whether 2019-20 can overthrow 2017-18 as the most upset-heavy recent season in college hoops. This season currently lags a bit behind where 2017-18 was at this point when it comes to both AP top-25 teams and AP top-five teams vs. unranked opponents, so 2019-20 is going to need more chaos down the stretch to catch and surpass it. The 2017-18 season, of course, is the one that eventually had an NCAA tournament that included the first-ever No. 16-over-a-No. 1 upset and No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago in the Final Four.

Of course, everything isn't always about stats. This season may not technically be an outlier when it comes to how many teams are losing to unranked opponents, but we've certainly seen several rare occurrences, and we've still got two months and an entire NCAA tournament to go. For the first time ever, four AP No. 1 teams lost before January in a season—and a fifth was added when Kansas succumbed to Villanova in mid-December.

Duke's 150-game home non-conference winning streak dating back to 2000 was memorably snapped by Stephen F. Austin—the first time the Blue Devils lost a home game to an unranked non-power conference foe since 1983. Kentucky's streak of 52 straight home wins against unranked non-conference opponents was ended by Evansville. Clemson beat UNC in Chapel Hill for the first-time ever (in 60 tries!), and, speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heels currently have a losing record in January for the first time since 2002. Rutgers—Rutgers!—is tied for second place in the Big Ten and very much looks like it will end a 29-year NCAA tournament drought.

College hoops fans have grown to expect the twists and turns this season has brought, and maybe 2019-20 feels particularly wild after a relatively tame 2018-19. Maybe it's all the streaks that have fallen, or maybe it was the early AP No. 1 losses that set an unshakable tone. College basketball is chaotic at its heart—after all, the sport's big showcase is a 68-team single-elimination tournament. Regardless of numbers, this season will likely always be remembered as a true roller coaster by fans, especially if March Madness lives up to its name.