47-35 halftime deficit. Malachi Flynn inefficient from 3. Yanni Wetzel in single digits. Less than 40% field goal percentage as a team. All these factors contributed to San Diego State, the last remaining unbeaten team in college basketball, finally suffering their first loss to a 14-14 UNLV team that hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2013. This is a bad loss that could affect them from being a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This is a bad loss that could potentially give other teams with similar styles coaching film on how to take down San Diego State. All of that is understandable. However, at the same time, I believe this is a blessing in disguise for them, as the winning streak they were on is just not sustainable for the rest of the season. If the Aztecs want any shot to win a title, this loss will allow them to refocus rather than remaining overconfident they can win with a lot of the same styles of play on the big stage.
I mentioned in an article I wrote a few weeks ago how the pressure of being undefeated was going to make it difficult for San Diego State to succeed in the tournament, in addition to being a mid-major Top 2 seed, likely a 1. Even a team as talented on paper as 2014-15 Kentucky couldn’t finish off their undefeated season, losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four 71-64. There are too many good teams and a strong amount of parity in college basketball now, and that makes this kind of feat next to impossible, hence why it hasn’t been accomplished since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers in 1976.
From that logic, would your team rather have that loss then within the tournament or even within the conference tournament which would directly affect seeding even more, or would you rather have it happen now when there is still time to turn things around? I think 99.9% of people would take it now, and have time to focus and reset rather than just trying to play with the same overconfidence, because it is not sustainable. Throughout recent NCAA Tournament history, there are plenty of cases where teams that have streaked into the tournament and then lost early, whether they were 1 or 2 seeds. In 2015, we saw Villanova end the regular season on a 12-game winning streak and win the Big East Tournament, and then within 2 rounds of the NCAA Tournament get shocked by #8 seed North Carolina State, leading to the famous crying flute girl meme. That team entered the tournament having not lost since January 19. In 2016, Michigan State ended the season on a 10-game winning streak, including winning the Big Ten Tournament, and then got shocked by #15 seeded Middle Tennessee State in the first round. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t know what I know now and fell into the trap of picking that Spartan team to win it all. But 4 years later, they help prove this theory. Gonzaga in 2013, aided by the easy West Coast Conference, entered the tournament on a 14-game winning streak having not lost since January 19 against Butler. In the NCAA Tournament, they ended up almost being the first 16 seed to lose to a 1, but surviving against Southern University of the Southwestern Athletic Conference 64-58. After that, they lost 76-70 to #9 seeded and eventual Cinderella team Wichita State. Ironically, the year after, Wichita State did the same thing, entering the tournament 34-0 and then losing in the Round of 32 to a #8 seeded Kentucky team. Lastly, we have my favorite of them all, 2018 Virginia, engraved in history as the only 1 seed to lose to a 16. While their winning streak wasn’t as big (8 games), they hadn’t lost since February 10, and they kept winning the exact same way, just thinking their philosophy of defense was going to carry them through. Then, they made the wrong side of history, getting obliterated 74-54 by #16 seeded UMBC, hitting the lowest of lows for a 1 seed the NCAA tournament has ever seen.
There are also examples the other way too, where good teams can have good losses and that will help them go far. I’m not saying these teams end up going all the way, but they make it to the Final Four or Elite Eight overcoming other expectations, which San Diego State will likely have to do being a Mountain West team. Examples of this include Gonzaga in 2016-17, that made their first Final Four in school history and eventually went to the National Championship Game, falling to North Carolina. Before that run, they lost 79-71 in the final game of the season to BYU, allowing them to refocus and play with that extra effort to do the little things in the tournament, which they did in a lot of key games later on in that tournament. Granted, they were aided by the worst non-call I have ever seen in an NCAA Tournament, when Zach Collins stuck his hand through the hoop and got away with what should’ve been a goaltending call against Northwestern. However, that doesn’t guarantee that Gonzaga would’ve lost that game either, even though it was more likely the case with Northwestern having a big second half. Looking 9 years before, 2007-08 Memphis had very similar circumstances, back when they had John Calipari and were still in Conference USA. They lost on February 23 of that year to Tennessee, which wasn’t a bad loss, as Tennesee was a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year. However, that loss helped them reset and allowed them to make it to the Final Four and within seconds of a National Championship before Mario Chalmers broke their hearts. In 2004-05, Illinois lost in the final game of the season to a 20-12, not bad but not great, Ohio State team. They ended up using that loss as a wakeup call and made it all the way to the Final Four and then the National Championship before, similarly to Gonzaga, losing to Roy Williams and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Go back a year, you have St. Joseph’s, who similarly to 2014 Wichita State ended the regular season undefeated. However, they got shocked in the Atlantic 10 tournament by Xavier. However, they still recovered nicely and made it all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to a good Louisville team. Lastly, a team that did win it all was the 2005-06 Florida Gators, who lost on February 26 of that season to a very average Alabama team. That among with some other losses knocked that team down to a 3 seed. However, that didn’t phase them and stop them from taking home their first of two National Championships. Not to mention, despite being a 1 seed, the second championship team also lost February 27 of that season to Tennessee before being able to refocus and overcome the pressure of repeating as National Champions.
This is far from a perfect theory, as most Championship and Final Four teams are somewhere in between the two extremes being shown here, and most Top 3 seeds that get upset in the Round of 64 and Round of 32 are in the same boat. However, if I’m trusting a team with a good loss to reset and refocus or a team riding an unrealistic winning streak into the NCAA Tournament, I’m taking the team with the good loss. San Diego State would’ve been the unrealistic winning streak team had they stayed undefeated into the NCAA Tournament, almost guaranteeing they would’ve lost the first weekend. This loss puts me slightly more confident in this Aztecs team, especially since they are well-rounded and well-coached. They will still most likely have the pressure of trying to succeed as a mid-major conference Top 2 seed in a weird year, which still could get to them. However, they avoid having the double whammy of that paired with an undefeated season and an unrealistic, unsustainable winning streak.