HARRISONBURG — They say it’s difficult to beat the same team three times in one season. “They” might be flat-out wrong.
James Madison will play William & Mary in the first round of the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament Saturday after sweeping the regular-season series, including a 69-67 come-from-behind road win last weekend.
Even when the matchup was a mere hypothetical, JMU power forward Rayshawn Goins alluded to the cliché, mentioning last week that it might be tough for his Dukes to beat W&M in three straight meetings.
History indicates otherwise.
The last 11 times that a team swept an opponent in the regular season and then played them again in the CAA tournament, the initial winners prevailed all 11 times. That includes an instance involving these same two teams in 2009, when the Dukes beat W&M for a third straight time in the first round of the tourney, 70-48.
“I think, rather [than] this being much of a true competitive issue, it gives media an opportunity to bring interesting possibilities to ‘try to level the playing field,’” Dr. Jim Bauman, a sports psychologist in Virginia’s athletic department, wrote in an e-mail about the adage, before being told any of the actual data. “Just another way of saying, ‘Hey, anything can happen,’ and it provides hope for all. We aren’t talking about true probability…for example, what are the statistical probabilities of the same team beating another team three times in the same year? If one team is significantly better, the probability is high.”
The psychologist is right.
According to STATS LLC., there have been 981 similar matchups across Division I college basketball over the past 10 seasons. The teams entering the third game 2-0 are a combined 710-271 (.724 winning percentage) in the third meeting.
Obviously, there are likely many cosmic mismatches in that subset. If the Harlem Globetrotters play the Washington Generals 300 times, they still probably wouldn’t lose.
But back to reality and the CAA, where, at least this season, no team appears considerably better than any other. Third-seeded JMU (17-14 overall, 11-7 in the CAA) ranks 205th nationally in RPI, while W&M (13-16, 7-11) is only moderately behind at 264.
Madison coach Matt Brady didn’t resort to the inaccurate cliché but said his team’s early 19-point deficit against W&M on Saturday may have been due to overconfidence from the first matchup, an 81-71 JMU victory in early February.
“I do think that one of the things that happened is we won the first game, and there’s that natural thing with young guys that we’re going to win the next one because we already beat them,” Brady said. “And sometimes you have to fight that, and that might be doubly so right now.”
Neither Brady nor Tribe coach Tony Shaver said they were fond of their tourney draw, but for different reasons.
“I just don’t want to play a team back-to-back — end of the regular season, first game of the tournament,” Shaver said. “I never prefer that… It’s not a matchup — it’s not that we don’t want to play JMU… You just prefer to play somebody different.”
Brady, whose job is on the line this weekend, was more concerned with the perception that his Dukes should beat W&M a third time.
“The JMU community will look at the next game and say, ‘Well, you just beat them on the road, you certainly can beat them on a neutral court,’” Brady said. “I think that’s fool’s gold. You have to play really well to beat a William & Mary basketball team.”
Second-seeded Delaware will try for a sweep Saturday against No. 7 Hofstra in another case of a CAA team trying to beat an opponent for a third time.
The last time the initial losers won the third matchup in the CAA tournament was in 2008 when both William & Mary and George Mason twisted the trend on the same day. The fifth-seeded Tribe beat No. 1 VCU in the semifinals after losing to the Rams twice in the regular season, and No. 3 Mason topped second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington under the same circumstances.
W&M will try to do the same, and for Tribe players, an instant rematch with JMU provides them the opportunity to wash away a game they felt they blew last weekend.
“It’s one of those things where we can learn from what we did wrong, we can focus on it this week and get ready for Richmond — which is exciting,” Tribe center Tim Rusthoven said moments after the loss. “You hate to have it happen, but we have something to look forward to.”
Will the Tribe be more pumped up than usual? Will the Dukes take them lightly? Will one coach use the results of the previous two battles to exploit his opponents’ weakness?
No, said Brady. It will come down to something much simpler.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of surprises,” Brady said. “Tony is a terrific coach. We’re always in dogfights with them; I hope we’re in a dogfight on Saturday. Whoever plays better is going to win the game.”