Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Jersey Institute of Technology ended its 51-game losing streak in men's college basketball last night.

Long losing streaks would appear to stem from one (or both) of two factors: either a team is repeatedly overmatched physically, or it plays opponents of a comparable ability level but keeps losing due to a "momentum" of failure. The latter, which could include a randomness component, would consist of missed shots in the clutch, a loss of confidence, etc. The "overmatched" explanation would presumably yield a long streak of blow-out losses, whereas the "negative momentum" explanation would seem to call for a number of the losses to be by relatively small margins.

(Long winning streaks would represent the opposite patterns -- a team either being physically superior to its opponents or taking advantage of some combination of luck, clutch play, and confidence).

Which factor played a bigger role in NJIT's losing streak? Given that the team is currently making the transition from Division II to Division I play, one might be tempted to argue that inferiority of physical ability and talent is the culprit. Indeed, NJIT has played against many schools with well-established basketball (or general athletic) programs, such as Penn State, St. John's, and Rutgers.

However, if one looks at NJIT's page on Ken Pomeroy's statistical ranking website, one finds that a large share of the team's games appear to have been against comparably weak opposition.

NJIT is ranked No. 344 -- and last -- among Division I teams and several of its losses have come to teams ranked 250th or worse in the nation (Yale, 250; Towson, 268; Hartford, 274; Columbia, 294; St. Peter's, 296; Wagner, 299; Monmouth, 303; and Maryland-Eastern Shore, 334). Bryant University, whom NJIT defeated to end the streak, was ranked No. 329.

Admittedly, some of the games don't fit into my dichotomous scheme. NJIT lost to Yale by 29 points and to Columbia by 23 -- in other words, blow-out losses to teams with comparable rankings to NJIT. Go figure!

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