Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Mississippi Valley State's Unusual Win/Loss Distribution

My friend Gregg from Los Angeles recently drew my attention to Mississippi Valley State's unusual distribution of wins and losses in men's basketball this season. As seen in this game-by-game log, the Delta Devils completed non-conference play with a 1-11 record (the only victory coming by a single point in double overtime). However, once league play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) began on January 3, MVSU really took off, winning all 17 games from then on! After the 15th straight win, the national media started taking notice.

Quite a turnaround, right, from nearly winless to unbeatable? Well, even a quick glance at MVSU's schedule reveals that the non-conference segment (played nearly all on the road) was much harder than the conference games. I created the following table to document this fact, using Ken Pomeroy's computer rankings (as of Monday night). Non-conference games are shown in white text, with conference games in yellow. For comparison purposes, Mississippi Valley State's ranking is 246.

Opponent MVSU Opponent Rank
@Notre Dame L 32
@DePaul L 169
@N. Carolina L 7
@S. Carolina L 160
Tennessee St. W 182
Cal Poly L 184
@Arkansas L 111
@Northwestern L 56
@Ole Miss L 103
@Florida L 17
@Wisconsin L 5
@Iowa State L 31
Arkansas-Pine Bluff W 333
@Alabama State W 321
@Alabama A&M W 341
Alcorn State W 342
Southern U. W 327
@Prairie View A&M W 329
@Texas Southern W 283
Jackson State W 335
Grambling State W 345
Alabama State W 321
Alabama A&M W 341
@Alcorn State W 342
@Southern U. W 327
Prairie View W 329
Texas Southern W 283
@Grambling State W 345
@Jackson State W 335

Looking at the table, MVSU's turnaround may seem less astounding and more explicable than when first hearing the team's records during its losing (1-11) and winning (17-0) stretches. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, all opponents were good enough to be ranked 184 or better as of yesterday, and five were ranked in the top 35. In the SWAC, with the exception of Texas Southern (283), all other opponents were ranked from 321-345 (Grambling State, at 345, is dead last in the nation).

One could argue that MVSU's season simply consists of losing to superior teams and beating inferior ones. I don't think this characterization does justice to what the Delta Devils have accomplished, however. First, winning 17 straight games under any circumstances is not easy. Second, the team clearly did not feel its season was lost after starting out 1-11 and kept plugging away as conference play started (one might say the team had a "Devil may care" attitude).

At worst (if it loses in the SWAC tournament), MVSU will be playing in the post-season National Invitation Tournament (NIT), which guarantees a berth to all regular-season conference champions. At best, if it wins the SWAC tourney, the Delta Devils will be playing in the NCAA "Big Dance."

As I suspected, MVSU's road schedule had to do with "The Delta Devils crisscross[ing] the country, playing some of the nation’s top teams on the road in exchange for money to supplement the athletic budget," according to the above-linked Washington Post article. That MVSU lost nearly all of these non-conference games is not that surprising. That the Devils have won all their conference games (even in a relatively easy conference) is impressive.

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