I mean, wow.
Mississippi State’s victory over UConn was a great game, and a great upset. Mississippi State will go down in history as the team that ended the longest win streak in basketball (and possibly college team sports) history, and they did it in style.
First off, let’s be clear that this is not the most improbable upset of all time. The FiveThirtyEight March Madness predictions gave Mississippi State a 13 percent chance of winning, which — if accurate — wouldn’t even make the dais in the celebration of greatest upsets in history. It wasn’t even the Bulldogs’ biggest upset this week, as our model gave them only an 11 percent chance of beating Baylor, who they beat 94-85 in the Elite Eight. Yes, some people (like this idiot) thought 13 percent was crazy high given UConn’s history, not to mention the 98-38 beatdown the Huskies gave the same Bulldogs team in last year’s Sweet 16.
But if I went into this game thinking the model was too optimistic for Mississippi State, by halftime it started looking like that 13 percent might have been low. Not only was UConn not dominating, they were getting outplayed.
For me, this is what made this upset even more amazing. Sometimes the better team’s shot goes cold or the underdog’s heats up at the right time, and there isn’t much to do about it except try to do better next game. That was not this game.
Shooting and shooting opportunities
To my eye, the UConn offense looked frustrated all night, yet they were easily still the better shooting team. UConn shot 42 percent on 2-point shots and 47 percent on 3-point shots, while Mississippi State shot 42 percent and 27 percent, respectively. All together, the Huskies scored 1.12 points per shot (counting 2-point shooting fouls) compared to 0.90 points per shot for the Bulldogs.
That should be a recipe for a nice comfortable win. But the Huskies had only 57 shooting possessions (46 shots from the floor, plus 11 shooting fouls), while the Bulldogs had 73 (67 plus 6).
How did Mississippi State get 16 more shooting opportunities? Like so:
- According to the play-by-play of the game on ESPN, the Bulldogs had 16 rebounds on offense to the Huskies’ six, creating ten more scoring opportunities.1
- The Bulldogs had 13 turnovers to the Huskies’ 17, which created four more opportunities for Mississippi State.2
- The Bulldogs had the last offensive possession in all five periods, and started with the ball in the second and third quarters, netting them two extra “fencepost” possessions.
To recap: Mississippi State netted ten extra shot opportunities from rebounding, four from steals/ball protection, and two from clock management.
UConn’s offensive failure
Those possession stats are the “what” of “what happened” – the Bulldogs made up a sizeable shooting gap by edging the Huskies in the other aspects of the game. But why did it happen?
The story of this game was the UConn offense continuously trying — and failing — to penetrate Mississippi State’s interior defense. This was reflected in a few ways:
- The Huskies made just 42 percent of their 2-point shots, compared to 58 percent in the regular season.
- Despite all those misses, they got only six of 29 possible offensive boards, for 21 percent. Compare that to 36 percent in the regular season.
- The Huskies turned the ball over 17 times (eight stolen). With just four steals themselves, they forced 13 fewer turnovers than they committed. In the regular season, they forced 1.7 fewer turnovers from steals than the total number of turnovers they committed per game, on average. Much of the deficit Friday night resulted from interior passes that the Bulldogs got their hands on.
The irony is that UConn was shooting better than average from beyond the arc, making 47 percent of its threes, compared to their regular-season average of 40 percent. Despite being frustrated all night trying to get to the basket, they just kept trying and trying. As I saw it, it looked like the Huskies responded to their struggles by trying to get back to “fundamental” rim-attacking basketball, when they probably should have gone less fundamental and bombed away from the perimeter.
Oh, and Connecticut also missed a couple of free throws that probably could have sealed the deal. This could have been nerves, but who knows. If the teams were who we thought they were, the game shouldn’t have been close enough for that to matter.
After Mississippi State beat Baylor, a team we though had a real chance of beating UConn, my main thought was that Baylor probably wasn’t as good as I thought they were. But I should have been giving Mississippi State more credit. Against UConn, they earned it all, with full backpay.
Correction (April 3, 4:06 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the sources of some of Mississippi State’s extra scoring opportunities. The article incorrectly said that six of those opportunities came from their three fewer turnovers, when three fewer turnovers would only account for three extra opportunities. Using the play-by-play data to account for the remaining discrepancy, we determined that Mississippi State netted four opportunities from turnovers instead of six, and 10 opportunities from rebounding instead of eight.