The Luck Lottery

-Jim Root

One of the most beautiful and desirable damsels in the world is undoubtedly Lady Luck. With her on your side, you can accomplish things you might not have thought possible – pulling off a shocking upset, winning a massive number of blackjack hands in a row, currying the favor of a special lady (a different kind than Lady Luck), or even figuring out what that crucial memory is that Professor Slughorn won’t share with you about schoolboy Voldemort. Without her, though, you could be in major trouble in any arena, be it sports or social.

Most people perceive luck as an intrinsic, non-quantifiable factor, but not our hero Ken Pomeroy. Mr. Pomeroy, ever the legend, has taken a crack at calculating a “luck” factor for college basketball teams in his rankings, attempting to use data to quantify the ever-elusive factor of fortune. How does he determine something like that? Here’s an excerpt from his 11/29/2006 (2006!) blog entry explaining the idea of luck:

So basically, it’s a comparison between a team’s “expected” record and their “actual” record (side note: I clicked on that “gaussian method” link – it’s just a fancy way of saying bell curve). A lot of factors come in here: the strength of that team’s schedule, how well each team shot on a given day (always a toss-up), injuries, etc. Admittedly, at this point in the season, there’s still some “noise” in the numbers with preseason rankings (Pomeroy himself says this), but it’s an interesting factor to inspect regardless. So with that introduction, let’s take a look at the early returns on that formula and what it may mean for the future:

Luck Is On Their Side

Maryland (Luck rating: 7th of 351) – Let’s just say I was not surprised to see the Terrapins show up high in this category. Along with a near-miracle comeback against Georgetown, Maryland survived Oklahoma State by 1 on a barely-too-late buzzer-beater by the Cowboys, snuck by Kansas State by 1, battled with American in College Park (won by 6), and had to mount double-digit second-half comebacks against both Towson and Richmond.  They’re 3-0 in 1-point games (plus an OT win). Rumor has it, they’re considering changing their name to the Maryland Rabbit’s Feet – that’s unconfirmed though.

Strangely, this is not the first time a Melo Trimble-led team has had elite luck. Seemingly constantly underrated by KenPom during his freshman 2014-15 campaign, the Terps went 28-7 and earned a 4-seed, but finished just 35th in Pomeroy’s rankings – resulting in a sparkling #2 ranking in luck. It’s incredibly anecdotal, but one could make the argument that having Trimble (or really, any lead guard/proficient shot creator) helps you succeed in close games, which will positively impact your luck. That, or Melo melts Lady Luck’s heart. 

Auburn (8th) – Another team I’m not terribly surprised to see, as the Pearly Tiggers are 6-1 with wins over Texas Tech and at UAB yet still haven’t cracked KenPom’s top 100. They’ve been on a pretty steady rise up the rankings (apart from getting Boiled by Purdue), though, and with final non-conference tests against possibly-disappointing Oklahoma and at definitely-disappointing UConn, Pearl’s Party could enter SEC play at 11-1.  

If this team was to have a renaissance, it was going to be because of the stellar freshman class, and that has rang true. Mustapha Heron, Danjel Purifoy, and Jared Harper (all frosh) lead the team in minutes played, with Heron seizing the Alpha Dog role from day one. With a vastly-improved defense, the Tigers could actually make some noise if the returning pieces pick up the slack from the outside – TJ Dunans, Bryce Brown, and TJ Lang are a combined 16/70 from deep so far (23%), which is coincidentally the same percentage of pretzels I can throw in my co-writer Ky’s mouth from 20 feet away.  

North Carolina State (17th) – This one is interesting to me, as I had previously perceived the Wolfpack as “unlucky” thus far. Part of that perception is due to the nine-game ineligibility of Turkish Tower of Terror (copyright: me) Omer Yurtseven, but upon closer review, the Wolfpack simply aren’t playing that well. Narrow home wins over Georgia Southern, Loyola Chicago, and Boston U hurt in KP’s efficiency margin calculation, and he’s basically saying they’re lucky to have avoided losing any of those games.

Currently nestled at 66th, I’d expect that to rise with the addition of Yurtseven, the eventual return of Mav Rowan from injury, and the continued incorporation of Ted Kapita into the rotation, and the Wolfpack may be a rare instance where playing better actually lowers their luck (better eff. margin = higher expected wins = luck goes down). Numbers are fun!

Other quick hitters:

Valparaiso (5th) – Probably the Great Hope for mid-majors everywhere to earn an at-large, the Crusaders are going to have to fight the regression of good fortune throughout the rest of the season. It pains me, but this will probably correct with two or three bad Horizon League conference losses.

UConn (26th) – UConn hasn’t beaten a D1 team by more than 3 points, and that’s despite playing 4 teams currently ranked 180th or worse. Injuries have been crushing, but even so – it’s pretty terrible that the Huskies are lucky to be 3-4 vs. D1 competition. Yikes.

Chattanooga (38th) – The eye test has let me down a bit with the Mocs this year, and that’s sort of confirmed here. I’m still pretty high on them, but ETSU appears to be the bigger threat from the SoCon at this point.

USC (50th) – Bennie Boatwright’s injury is a factor here. Basically, my theory is that they’ve won their games, yet played below their true ability while he’s been out/dealing with injury, making their “expected” record lower than it should be. I still ride for the Trojans!  

 Luck Is Not Interested

St. John’s (Luck rating: 345th of 351) – I bring up the Johnnies with a heavy heart, as their combination of gunning guards and skinny shot-blockers just hasn’t added up to the improvement I had hoped for. They’re 4-5 with only one “bad” loss, but that loss was Gigli-bad – at home to the 326th-ranked team, Delaware State.

The misfortune struck again with an injury to Marcus LoVett, one of the team’s electric lefty freshman bombers, but perhaps the schedule is kind enough over the next two weeks for the Storm to survive until a trip to Syracuse on December 21st. The Orange’s offense is as threatening as a Care Bear right now, so if Mullin’s crew takes care of business over the next three, that game becomes pivotal for them. I still have tournament hope for you Johnnies!!


Princeton (327th) – If Saint John’s slow start made me sad, then Princeton’s current 2-4 record vs. D1 competition has me crying like Jimmy V’s speech. The glorious dream of a two-bid Ivy League seems dead, as its most promising shot at an at-large candidate has stumbled out of the gates, including a tumble to the ground against sneaky-decent Lehigh. Princeton is getting murdered by free throw disparity, as their lack of dynamic drivers and athletic perimeter defenders has been repeatedly exposed by a challenging opening schedule, and their early cold three-point shooting has negated their usual means of compensating for that charity stripe deficit.

But as they say – it gets better. The Tigers are currently in Hawaii, which I’m told is a nice place to be this time of year (Chicago = not so much!), and the schedule lightens up somewhat pre-Ivy League aside from a trip to Monmouth.  They’re still the highest-ranked team in the conference by 79 spots, so if they can get the shooting on track, a sprint through the league schedule is not out of the question.


Wichita St. (317th) – This boils down to the fact that the Shockers have completely ROASTED inferior competition (mmm roasted corn on the cob sounds great), winning by the following hilarious margins in their non-Louisville/Michigan State games: 46, 37, 27, 37, 45, 30, 15, 30. KenPom doesn’t really cap margin of victory, so brutally gutting teams pumps up their efficiency margin. The Shockers are 8-2 and sit at 17th in KP’s rankings, so this basically says the Shockers were unlucky to lose to #38 Michigan State on a neutral floor.  I expect the beatdowns to continue into MVC play (maybe with a bump or two here or there), as the Shockers’ elite perimeter length and depth make them a matchup nightmare for most Valley foes.

Other quick hitters:

Florida Atlantic (347th) – We’ve already started to see this correct with an impressive road win as a 20.5-point underdog at Ohio State. And yes, mostly I just wanted to bring up that loss and laugh at the Buckeyes about it...

Northwestern (321st) – Another positive sign for the Wildcats’ journey to the tourney! They were barely edged in their two losses to Notre Dame and Butler and have largely taken care of business in their other tilts, so luck may be on their side going forward. Here’s hoping that banked good fortune leads to some resume-building Big Ten upsets.

Northern Iowa (315th) – UNI hasn’t played a team ranked worse than 192nd in KenPom’s rankings, so being 3-4 (vs. D1) isn’t totally shameful, but they’ll really need to avoid many more “hard luck” losses like George Mason at home and at Wyoming in order to keep their at-large resume tenable. Opponents have also shot an excellent percentage from deep against them, but given that they tend to allow that scheme-wise and don’t have much length on the perimeter aside from Jeremy Morgan and freshman Isaiah Brown (who has missed games), that’s not entirely surprising.


So what did we learn from this dive into statistical luck? Love is fleeting, hope is a mirage…just kidding. There’s still a ton of season to go for everyone, even for the unluckiest of squads (that’s right, even you Weber St.), and the fortunes of a team can turn at any moment. Except Maryland – somehow that team will always find a way to escape.