Tomorrow, we begin an annual tradition, our “Ridiculously Early 2014-15 Previews.” But how much can a team improve or fall within a year?
To try and determine what kind of improvement or drop off one should expect, we went back to 1980, and compared the overall records for teams from year-to-year. Of course, there are a ton of variables that can determine how a team performs from season-to-season, but I feel that 34 seasons of data is a fairly solid sample.
First, team’s records are more volatile now than any point over the last three decades. There are a few reasons for this: one, more games are played. In the 2013-14 season, the average team played 32 games. In 1980-81? That number was below 24, a difference of eight games. Second, Division I basketball is simply bigger, and it’s easier for teams to pick a schedule that is more equal to a team’s strength.
Even so, the average win differential, which is simply the average difference in wins from year-to-year, either positive or negative, has risen over the past few decades.
- 1980’s: 4.532
- 1990’s: 3.811
- 2000’s: 4.785
- 2010’s: 4.925
Last year, that average was 4.41, meaning the average team was either four wins better, or worse, than the year before. Surprisingly, though, the most extreme win differentials over the past 34 years were mostly during the 2000’s.
- 2004-05: 6.27 win differential
- 2005-06: 5.72
- 2011-12: 5.70
- 2009-10: 5.60
- 1989-90: 5.57
So what does this all mean? The average team will likely be within four or five wins of last year’s total. To use Southeast Missouri as an example: the Redhawks were 18-14 last season. Next season, they’re likely to finish with somewhere between 14-22 wins. It’s a large range, to be sure, but a bit more meaningful when you look at teams at the bottom of the standings. For example…Eastern Illinois, who were 11-19, aren’t likely to push their record much higher than 15 wins, which would likely be at or around .500.
That’s not to say there haven’t been much larger one-season turnarounds. In the past 24 years, six teams have won 10 or more games than the season before, including two in the last five years:
- 2011-12 Jacksonville State: 15-18 from 5-25 (+10 wins)
- 2009-10 Murray State: 31-5 from 19-12 (+12 wins)
- 1998-99 Morehead State: 13-15 from 3-23 (+10 wins)
- 1992-93 Tennessee State: 19-9 from 2-23 (+17 wins)
- 1987-88 Murray State: 19-9 from 9-15 (+10 wins)
- 1986-87 Eastern Kentucky: 16-11 from 6-18 (+10 wins)
The bad news is that there have been nine teams that have done the same…in the opposite direction, including four teams in the last five years alone.
- 2013-14 Tennessee State: 5-25 from 18-15 (-13 wins)
- 2012-13 Murray State: 21-10 from 31-2 (-10 wins)
- 2010-11 Eastern Illinois: 9-20 from 19-12 (-10 wins)
- 2009-10 UT Martin: 4-25 from 22-10 (-18 wins)
- 2004-05 Murray State: 17-11 from 28-6 (-11 wins)
- 2001-02 Southeast Missouri: 6-22 from 18-12 (-12 wins)
- 1989-90 Middle Tennessee: 10-15 from 21-8 (-11 wins)
- 1984-85 Morehead State: 3-20 from 21-6 (-18 wins)
- 1982-83 Middle Tennessee: 6-20 from 22-8 (-16 wins)
There are a couple of items to be noted here. First, with the exception of the ’09-10 Racers team, every other team to make a double-digit win jump in one season had fewer than 10 wins the season before. That’s not unsurprising, as it’s much easier to find wins when you’re not good the year before. But it is somewhat interesting that there weren’t any 10-12 win teams. The 2012-13 EKU team was nine wins better than their 16 victories the year before, and the 2011-12 TSU team was six better than 15 the year’s previous, so there’s still room for improvement for teams in the double-digit win range.
So what does this all mean? The average team will likely be within four or five wins of last year’s total.
Second, I want to look specifically at the four teams that had huge dropoffs in the past five seasons. There is a pretty simple theme here: they lost a lot of talent. TSU lost Robert Covington and Kellen Thorton, Murray State still had Isaiah Canaan, but lost Donte Poole and Jewuan Long the year before their big drop off. UT Martin graduated Lester Hudson when they went 18 wins worse the next year. It’s not much of a mystery why those teams had the big drop-off.
On the positive win side, only the two Murray State teams won the conference the year of their big win jump. Most finished mid-pack.
There’s one more thing I want to look at, and that’s the two teams at the bottom of the conference. TSU finished 5-25 last season, UT Martin 8-23. Both teams had win percentages below .260. Historically, how have those teams done the next year? Better, but not by leaps and bounds.
Going back to 2007-08, eight teams have finished below .260 for the year. The average win differential the next year? +5.5. It was even higher back in the mid 2000’s, but has gone down recently.
The really good news: you have to go all the way back to 1993-94 to find a team that finished with fewer wins after going .260 or worse the year before. (It was UT Martin, by the way, who dropped from 5-18 to 3-20) Even better: every team since 2000-01 to go .260 won at least three more games the following season. So, pencil in UT Martin to reach double-digit wins, and TSU to at least reach the eight-win plateau.
TL:DR Expecting your team to win four or five more games next year is reasonable. Expecting them to win 10 or more games isn’t.