Purdue’s defeat of 5 Virginia was a stunning upset not because Purdue has no business beating Virginia but, rather, because the score was so lopsided.
How does the defending national champion find itself on the rough end of such a beat down? The answer is less complicated than it may seem, and it is something that we have already witnessed in another upset of a highly ranked team this season.
On November 25, Virginia Tech shocked #3 Michigan State in a 71-66 victory during the Maui Invitational. At first glance, this game and the Virginia-Purdue contest seem to share nothing of significance in common. However, two stats tell the tale of these upsets: three-point percentage and steals.
What stood out even more than Virginia Tech hanging closely with Michigan State before taking the lead midway through the first half was the Spartans’ insistence on launching three-pointers despite missing far more than they hit.
They made 8 of 23 while the Hokies made 10 of 21.
This doesn’t sound like a big difference until you consider the percentages—34.7 percent for Michigan State, 47.6 percent for Virginia Tech. So, while nearly one of every two threes the Hokies shot succeeded, only one of every three fell for the Spartans. This meant that every Spartan shot created two more opportunities for rebounds than did each of the Hokies’ attempts. Yet they kept shooting them, even after Virginia Tech came from behind and established a lead that they never relinquished.
Fast forward to tonight. Virginia attempted 24 three-pointers while hitting only 4, or16.7%. The problem this posed in the first half is the same one that got Michigan State whipped: Persistently tossing bad threes against teams that are good in transition creates scoring opportunities that would not have occurred with more judicious shot selection. In short, this is the stuff that runs are made of.
Then, you add the steals.
Michigan State had three steals and Virginia Tech had eight—more than twice as many. Purdue had twelve steals while Virginia had three. Four times as many! It’s hard to believe, but it happened. And it shows that both Virginia Tech and Purdue thought that aggressive defense would be key in trying to beat a powerhouse team. They were right.
What neither could have expected, though, is what would happen when the opportunities that stemmed from those missed threes dovetailed with those that came from the steals. These opportunities shifted these games in favor of the eventual winners by giving them an unusually large number of chances to score points that were not matched on the other end.
In the end, these examples provide us with a detailed accounts of the anatomy of a most interesting phenomenon: the college basketball upset.