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March 5, 2010
Breaks of the Game
The Role of Chance

by John Gasaway


Each season I like to compare teams' efficiency margins--otherwise known as their per-possession scoring margins--with their won-loss records. I do this because every year we see that two teams in the same conference can outscore their league opponents by the exact same per-possession margin but achieve different, sometimes very different, results in terms of those all-important wins and losses. Some people in a hurry call such discrepancies luck. I prefer the somewhat less loaded term chance, meaning we're dealing with things (for example how well your opponent shoots free throws) that lie at least partly outside of your control.

You ask: But what about all those clutch players we see being clutch in the clutch? Yes, some players are indeed "clutch," if by that term you mean: 1) their coach has designated them as the guy to take the last shot; 2) their shots tend to go in more often than do the shots of other players; and 3) they've set an expectation with the officials that when contact occurs it should be called as a foul on the defense. You and I can agree that such players are indeed clutch. They're valuable because, after all, close games do happen. When your team doesn't have one of those guys, you know it. And you don't like it.

But it's also true that history and number-crunching are in serene and indeed rather smug accord in saying that it's far better for your winning percentage to play well enough game in and game out to beat your opponents by eight or 11 or even 15 than it is to find yourself turning to your clutch player in yet another tie game. After all, other teams have clutch players too. In any game, then, chance is going to play a role. In a close game that role will assume new importance. Here's what I said in last year's piece on this topic:

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 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 teams over the past couple months only.

I measure chance according to how far a given team's conference record exceeds or falls short of what would be expected given their per-possession scoring margin. Of the 126 teams that I track during the conference season, here are the ones who have been the most fortunate in 2010.

(All stats and records based on games through March 4.)

1. Pepperdine (projected: 1-13; actual: 3-11)
The Waves this season were outscored in the WCC by more than last-place teams like DePaul (1-16) and Nebraska (2-13) were outscored in their leagues, yet the men of Malibu managed to win three of their 14 games. Anytime you calculate which teams have been statistically fortunate, you come up with a lot of struggling teams that won three or four games when they "should" have won zero or one. I propose to call such a team a Struggling Team That Won a Few, or STTWF.

2. Indiana (projected: 1-16; actual: 3-14)
On paper the Hoosiers are a classic STTWF, but that's deceiving. What really happened is that they began the Big Ten season with hope and are ending it with little or none. Tom Crean's men actually won three of their first six league games, but since January 22, they've gone 0-11 while being outscored by a whopping 0.27 points per trip. IU's presence on this list speaks to just how lopsided those 11 losses have been.

3. Rutgers (projected: 3-14; actual: 5-12)

4. East Carolina (projected: 2-13; actual: 4-11)
The Pirates are here solely because they lost at Marshall on February 6 by the score of 100-49. Teams that lose by 51 don't typically go 4-10 in their other 14 games. Go figure, ECU did just that.

5. Vanderbilt (projected: 10-5; actual: 12-3)
Their loss at home to Kentucky on February 20 was a heart-breaker, sure, but it also stands out as the only SEC game decided by single digits that the Commodores have lost this season. In conference games decided by less than ten points, Kevin Stallings' men are 9-1. Historically speaking, that is atypical.

6. South Florida (projected: 6-11; actual: 8-9)
Sort of the Bizarro Indiana. The Bulls started Big East play 0-4 and banked some large point deficits before that whole Dominique Jones thing happened and they won some relatively close games, including a couple in OT.

7. Oregon (projected: 4-13; actual: 6-11)
The Ducks are 4-0 against Pac-10 teams from L.A. and 2-11 against the rest of the league. Odd.

8. UAB (projected: 9-6; actual: 11-4)
The Blazers have been marked for an at-large bid in most brackets for the past few weeks, but for better or worse that skeptical arbiter known as efficiency margin has consistently been way more impressed by UTEP.

9. Pitt (projected: 10-7; actual: 12-5)
Right now I'm thinking a three-seed might be a smidge high for the Panthers. One man's opinion.

10. Memphis (projected: 11-4; actual: 12-3)
It is just so visually odd to see "Memphis" next to a per-possession points-allowed number like 1.06. Then again the Tigers do have easily CUSA's best offense.

Just off this list: Colorado State, Wyoming, Charlotte, New Mexico, Loyola Marymount, and Texas A&M.

Now for the unfortunate teams.

1. Dayton (projected: 12-3; actual: 8-7)
If you're surprised to see the Flyers in the top spot, you haven't been reading along. Shame on you. Now, I don't want to paint Brian Gregory's team entirely as blameless victims here. Last night they lost by four at Richmond, a result helped along immeasurably by the fact that UD coughed the ball up 20 times in a really slow (62-possession) game. Sometimes you really do make your own luck. But it's also true that teams who outscore their league by this wide a margin (0.12 points per trip) will be more successful than Dayton's been, um, pretty much every single time. At this moment, the Flyers are the single most unfortunate team in conference play that I have tracked over the past four seasons, beating the previous record set by North Carolina in 2007.

2. BYU (projected: 15-0; actual: 12-3)
Similar to Dayton, the Cougars certainly don't need my shoulder to cry on. They're an excellent team that had two cracks at New Mexico and lost both times, though granted the second game was played with an ailing Jimmer Fredette. It's just that in the past when a team has outscored its league by a fifth of a point per trip, as BYU has this year, they stand a good chance of losing just one game or perhaps even running the table.

3. Wisconsin (projected: 15-2; actual: 12-5)
The Badgers have outscored the Big Ten by the same margin that Duke has outscored the ACC.

4. UNLV (projected: 13-2; actual: 10-5)
I've said this eleventy-gillion times already, but the Mountain West tournament should be a must-see. NCAA seeds and indeed bids will be decided, and the league's top four teams (New Mexico, BYU, UNLV, San Diego State) are high-quality.

5. Alabama (projected: 8-7; actual: 5-10)
All year long I've watched as the Tide's efficiency margin has hovered at a spot that should put them around .500, but, alas, the actual record never did cooperate. Go figure.

6. Portland (projected: 12-2; actual: 10-4)
The WCC was the very picture of imbalance this season, as the Pilots, Gonzaga, and Saint Mary's all compiled gaudy efficiency margins while the league's other five teams all failed to score as many points as they allowed.

7. SMU (projected: 9-6; actual: 7-8)
This is just me, and as my good intro-writing friend Jay Bilas would say, reasonable people should make allowances for differences in taste. But I didn't particularly care for that "land of misfit toys" angle on the CUSA. Dallas will never be Chapel Hill in hoops terms, goodness knows, but Matt Doherty has done an excellent job with the Mustangs this year.

8. Missouri State (projected: 10-8; actual: 8-10)
I'm not sure that beating Evansville by six in the MVC tournament's first round last night proves or disproves anything, but the Bears were arguably better than their record would indicate this season.

9. Penn State (projected: 5-12; actual: 3-14)
Up until this year the Nittany Lions won a lot of close games. This season they lost them.

10. West Virginia (projected: 14-3; actual: 12-5)
The Mountaineers and Syracuse have outscored the Big East by virtually identical margins.

Just off this list: Southern Illinois, Michigan, Connecticut, Marshall, Southern Miss, and Houston.

Of course, it's not like the NCAA tournament constitutes some kind of chance-free realm where performance will suddenly correlate to outcome perfectly. Far from it: Chance will continue to be heard from all the way to Indy. But knowing the role it's played to this point can help you read a team and its bracket more knowingly. Keep these two lists handy.

John uses hoary old movie quotes like "Chance is a fool's name for fate!" on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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Addition by Subtractio... (03/04)
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2010-03-10 - Is Duke for Real?: ACC Tournament Preview
2010-03-10 - All Eyes on UK: SEC Tournament Preview
2010-03-08 - Tuesday Truths: Final Reality
2010-03-05 - Breaks of the Game: The Role of Chance
2010-03-04 - Player of the Year: Evan Turner
2010-03-02 - Tuesday Truths: Remember Duke?
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