Back and Forth: Eight Memorable Exhibition Upsets

Posted by Judson Harten on November 4th, 2014

Each week, RTC columnist Judson Harten will profile some of the week’s biggest upcoming games by taking a look back at some relevant history relating to the match-ups. This is Back And Forth.

Exhibitions are a tease, really. College basketball fans wait with great anticipation for the first practices of the season, sure, but what they really want are games. Live game action… that’s what counts. Exhibitions don’t really provide the same juice. But as we wait for games that count to get started, two things are almost certain:

  1. Your team is “coming along well” this season, per every team’s coach.
  2. Exhibition games are all we have to go on until the season actually tips off in about 10 days.
Even the great Jim Boeheim isn't immune to the curious upset from time-to-time. (Getty)

Even the great Jim Boeheim isn’t immune to the curious upset from time to time. (Getty)

Most of the time, the games aren’t even close. The completely outmatched D-II/D-III/NAIA team that took the big paycheck to come get its whoopin’ is just a preseason sacrificial lamb for most of the elite programs. Sometimes the games are a bit closer than anticipated because it obvious that the coaching staff wants to test some new wrinkles in their game plan — strategies, lineups, etc. Rarely do these teams suffer losses, but they do pop up from time to time. This week Back And Forth takes a look at some of the few exhibition upsets in recent years, and what, if anything, they meant for the season ahead.

1. November 3, 2009: LeMoyne 82, #25 Syracuse 79

THE SKINNY: When I set out to find some of the better exhibition upsets of recent years, this was the first one that I found in the search engines and websites I checked. Christopher Johnson’s three-pointer with 8.3 seconds left pushed the Division II Dolphins past the Orange. A newly-eligible Wes Johnson – in his lone season playing for coach Jim Boeheim – finished with a game-high 34 points in the loss.

IN THE END: The loss didn’t set any kind of tone for Syracuse that season. The Orange finished 30-5, was at one point ranked #1 in the nation, and eventually won the Big East on their way to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a run to the Sweet Sixteen. LeMoyne finished 18-10.

2. November 2, 2007: Grand Valley State 85, #8 Michigan State 83 (2 OTs)

THE SKINNY: In another of the more significant exhibition losses in recent college basketball memory, Justin Ringler converted a three-point play near the end of regulation to tie the game and Callistus Eziukwu contributed eight of his 15 points in the second overtime. Drew Neitzel, who had been tabbed as the B1G Preseason Player of the Year, didn’t score until midway through the second half.

IN THE END: The Tom Izzo train kept rolling regardless of this early loss. The Spartans finished 27-9, finished fourth in the B1G and went to the Sweet Sixteen. Grand Valley State turned out to be as good as advertised in that game, going 30-0 in the regular season and 18-0 in the Division II GLIAC.

3. November 2, 2012: St. Leo 69, Miami 67

THE SKINNY: If there ever was a game that displayed the exact opposite of how a team played when their games counted, it was the Hurricanes’ loss to the Lions prior to the 2012-13 season. The Miami big men — Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson — were turnover prone and St. Leo got its first win over a Division I opponent. What might have scared Miami fans? The starters played meaningful minutes.

IN THE END: Miami had the best season in program history thanks to the point guard play of Shane Larkin and a hoard of veterans (the average age of that Miami team hovered around 23 years old). They won the ACC regular season and tournament titles own the way to a Sweet Sixteen appearance.

4. November 8, 2010: Indianapolis 79, #23 Tennessee 64

THE SKINNY: For a Tennessee team that already needed to replace Wayne Chism, J.P. Prince and Bobby Maze, this didn’t help the fans’ anxiousness. Then-coach Bruce Pearl was beaten by former player Stan Gouard, who played for Pearl on a Division II national title team at Southern Indiana.

IN THE END: It was indicative of the season ahead for Tennessee. In the midst of an NCAA investigation surrounding Pearl over the Aaron Craft cookout, the Volunteers had a rough season. Paced by freshman one-and-done Tobias Harris and would-be veterans Trae Golden and Jordan McRae, a 19-15 record was the result. The Greyhounds went 19-9 and lost to eventual D-II national champion Bellarmine in the first round of the national tournament.

5. October 27, 2011: Seattle Pacific 69, Arizona 68

THE SKINNY: It was the beginning of an NIT season for the Wildcats, who were reeling from the loss of Derrick Williams to the NBA Draft and an influx of young talent that included Nick Johnson, who actually missed a three at the buzzer to win it.

IN THE END: Arizona went 23-12 and was upset by Bucknell in the first round of the NIT at home. The Falcons? They went 23-8 and made it to the third round of the D-II NCAA Tournament.

6. November 2, 2007: Tarleton State 95, Baylor 85

THE SKINNY: I almost feel bad for including this one since Baylor was coming off the tail-end of the hammer being dropped on the program after the Dave Bliss/Carlton Dotson/Patrick Dennehy murder and cover-up scandal. But it happened, and Tarleton got 23 points from St. John’s transfer Avery Patterson.

IN THE END: The Bears ended up going 21-11 and making the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a solid base of LaceDarius Dunn and Tweety Carter to build on. Baylor was fine.

7. November 6, 2007: Findlay 70, Ohio State 68

THE SKINNY: How did the Buckeyes bring in the post-Greg Oden/Mike Conley/Daequan Cook era? With a loss to the Division II Oilers. Kosta Koufos dropped 20 points in the loss.

IN THE END: It was bound to be an NIT season for Thad Matta’s Buckeyes before losing to Findlay. That tends to happen when you lose four starters. Ohio State capped the season at 24-13. The good news? They won the NIT.

8. November 2, 2013: Dixie State 71, UNLV 70

THE SKINNY: Bryce DeJean-Jones left the game with an injury in the first half and the Runnin’ Rebels never recovered. Another player in that game, Khem Birch, wouldn’t even make it through the semester before transferring. It was the beginning of a bad season for UNLV.

IN THE END: UNLV finished 20-13 and didn’t play in the postseason.

So what have we learned from these eight exhibition upsets? For the most part, those losses weren’t necessarily indicative of the season to come, but it is interesting that none of this group advanced past the Sweet Sixteen. Did the exhibition losses signal some degree of vulnerability that limited these teams’ ceilings?

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