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February 27, 2009
Lucky and Unlucky
Measuring the Breaks

by John Gasaway

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I'm not sure why "luck" is regarded as such a loaded term. To say a team's been lucky doesn't necessarily detract from their performance. (If I were a coach, I'd love for my team to have that particular "problem.") On the contrary, recognizing a team's good fortune merely acknowledges what we all understand intuitively: luck plays a role in basketball, just as it plays a role in sports and in life.

Measuring that role with some degree of precision was of course pioneered by Bill James in baseball and has more recently been brought to college hoops by my Basketball Prospectus colleague, Ken Pomeroy. Where Ken's luck stat takes in the entire season, however, my own hand-crafted measure is restricted to conference play, giving us a look at how the ball has bounced for major-conference teams over the past couple months only.

In back of this measure are the last 219 conference seasons played by the 73 teams in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, and SEC between 2006 and last year. A team's "luck" is measured here according to how far their conference record exceeds or falls short of what would be expected given their per-possession scoring margin.

Without further ado, the luckiest major-conference teams in the nation.

  1. Oregon State (Actual: 7-8; Predicted: 4-11). Everything about the Beavers this year has been dramatic, and I'm not even talking about the new gig for Craig Robinson's brother-in-law. This team's turnaround from last year is easily the largest per-possession improvement in major-conference hoops. It had to be: last year's team was outscored by an astounding 0.30 points per trip in the Pac-10. There has been dramatic change in Corvallis, no doubt. It turns out, however, that OSU's conference record, currently at 7-8, is dramatically fortunate as well. A team with OSU's per-possession performance "should" be just 4-11 at this point.
  2. Maryland (Actual: 6-7; Predicted: 4-9) . I realize that up until last Saturday, it would have been very hard to believe that anything connected with Maryland this season could be termed fortuitous. Still, the Terps' appearance here is pretty straightforward: A month ago they lost at Duke by 41 points. With most teams in most seasons, you don't lose by 41 and then go 6-6 in your other 12 games. Go figure, that's exactly what Gary Williams' team has done.
  3. Cincinnati (Actual: 8-7; Predicted: 6-9). The Bearcats have won an unusual number of close games (at DePaul, Georgetown twice, last night against West Virginia--man, did Yancy Gates look tough?) for a team that's been on the short end of a couple blowouts (at Marquette, at Villanova) and has lost some other games that weren't blowouts but weren't terribly close either (at Pitt).
  4. Penn State (Actual: 8-7; Predicted: 6-9) . The Nittany Lions popping up here is actually quite interesting. Last year Ed DeChellis' team posted the single most fortunate conference season out of the 219 complete league records in this particular vault. (PSU went 7-11 in the Big Ten in 2008, with a scoring margin that would more customarily give you a 3-15 record.) Meaning Penn State has been lucky now two years in a row. How can this be? Take it away Ken Pomeroy: "When you have 340-some D-I teams, you would expect about a fourth of them to be lucky two years running." The Nittany Lions are very much in the vanguard of that fourth. Either that or Talor Battle really is Robert Horry. You make the call.
  5. Kansas State (Actual: 7-6; Predicted: 5-8) If you're sensing a theme here, you're right. Teams like Oregon State and Kansas State both started their conference seasons losing games by some big margins, then got their acts together. With the Wildcats losing by 20 at Missouri on Wednesday night, the two teams have now recorded lopsided wins against each other on their respective home courts.
  6. Boston College (Actual: 8-6; Predicted: 6-8). When teams on this list aren't hewing to the Oregon State/Kansas State pattern, they're often following the Cincinnati template: close wins and less-close losses. That describes the Eagles pretty well. Over their last five games Al Skinner's team beat Florida State and Duke by five and six points, respectively, while losing to Wake Forest, Clemson and Miami by an average of about 13 points a game.
  7. St. John's (Actual: 4-11; Predicted: 2-13). St. John's? Lucky? Well, yeah, a little. Put it this way: it's an unusual for a team to lose five games by 19 points or more and then go 4-6 in their other ten.
  8. Providence (Actual: 9-7; Predicted: 7-9). Losing last week on the road to Louisville and at home against Notre Dame by 18 and 19 points respectively didn't do wonders for the scoring margin of a group that just knocked off the (soon to be former) number-one team.

So much for the fortunate few. What about teams who are due for a good bounce? Meet the unluckiest major-conference teams in the country.

  1. West Virginia (Actual: 8-7; Predicted: 10-5). The new number-one, as of this morning. Though the Mountaineers lost at Cincinnati last night by four, they actually haven't been in that many nail-biters. They have, however, won with ease on numerous occasions. In fact seven of West Virginia's eight wins have been by double digits. Bob Huggins' group is "just" 8-7 in-conference but this is a really good team, particularly on defense. You do not want them in your bracket next month.
  2. Georgia Tech (Actual: 1-12; Predicted: 3-10). I think you're going to find this list of unlucky teams a bit more intuitive than the lucky group. If a team, such as the Yellow Jackets, plays multiple overtime games and loses them all, then yes, that qualifies as unlucky.
  3. Wisconsin (Actual: 8-7; Predicted: 10-5) . See "Georgia Tech," above. The Badgers went through a devastating stretch in January, losing consecutive overtime games to Minnesota and Iowa. Bo Ryan's team then dropped a seven-point game at Illinois, a one-point game at home against Purdue and a three-point game at Northwestern. Wow.
  4. Texas (Actual: 8-5; Predicted: 10-3) . The Longhorns were handled with varying degrees of ease during visits to Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Each of their other three losses could have gone either way.
  5. Georgetown (Actual: 5-10; Predicted: 7-8). This month the Hoyas lost consecutive overtime games to Cincinnati and Syracuse. Last Saturday they lost to Marquette by six. By contrast, John Thompson III's team has won five Big East games by an average of 13 points per contest. Suggested bumper sticker for '09 team: Worse Than Expected, Better Than They Look.
  6. Clemson (Actual: 8-5; Predicted: 9-4). I was fairly surprised to see the Tigers lose at home to Virginia Tech on Wednesday night. Oliver Purnell's group has been notably solid on both sides of the ball in-conference.
  7. Duke (Actual: 9-4; Predicted: 10-3). See "Maryland" on the lucky list above. When a team wins a game by 41 points, as the Blue Devils did when they hosted the Terps on January 24, they're ordinarily going to do better than 8-4 in their other 12 games.
  8. Florida (Actual: 8-5; Predicted: 9-4). A weird situation obtains in the SEC right now. One hesitates to shout from the rooftops that Florida is better than their record (though indeed they are) because the team at the top of the league, LSU, is having its own PR difficulties. Bottom line: keep an eye on both Florida and the Tigers from Baton Rouge.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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