The topic of luck in sporting events is a tough one to broach with fans, as we tend to think about the outcomes of those games in absolutes.
You win, you’re the better team, even if that win came on your home court on a 35-foot buzzer-beater on a night where a 30% three-point shooting team went 8-for-10 from beyond the arc. That’s the way a sports fan’s mind works, because they want to believe that what happened during the course of a game wasn’t fluky or random or “lucky”.
On Tuesday, John Gasaway of ESPN Insider published his list of the unluckiest teams in college basketball in 2013-2014, a stat that he determined by looking at a team’s record based on what was expected given that team’s per-possession performance.
No. 1 on that list was Tennessee, a team that made the Sweet 16 and finished No. 7 nationally in KenPom’s rankings despite going 24-13 overall and 11-7 in the mediocre SEC. It’s not hard to find anecdotal evidence to support this point — the Vols twice lost to Texas A&M when Antwan Space, who hit 13 threes all season long, made a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer — which makes it easy for me to be on the same page calling the Vols “unlucky”.
But I have a hard time calling a couple of the other teams on this list “unlucky”.
Take No. 4 Iowa as an example. The Hawkeyes had enough talent on their roster to be a top ten team, but their issues had nothing to do with being unlucky or having the ball bounce their opponents’ way. They routinely blew late leads in games that they should have won, they couldn’t defend anyone and they completely lost their confidence over the last month of the season. They should be better than they were last season, and if they are, it will be because they developed the mental maturity to execute during a close game down the stretch and because they improved defensively.
The same can be said for Utah, who checks in at No. 6 on that list. The reason they missed out on the NCAA tournament was because their non-conference schedule was an absolute joke and because they couldn’t close out close games, particularly on the road. Of their 10 regular season losses, only one was by double figures and only two were by more than four points. They were 0-3 in overtime games and 0-5 in games decided by a single possession.
Winning is a skill. The mental fortitude to be able to execute in crunch time — being “clutch” — is a skill. Utah didn’t have either of them last season.
I get the point that Gasaway is trying to make: Utah and Iowa were probably better than their record indicated last season. I agree.
But let’s not pin their relative lack of success of being “unlucky”. Leaving it up to chance takes away fault, and the bottom line is that those two teams lost games they shouldn’t have lost.