by Eric Martin
“This is a tough week for us,” Krzyzewski said before Duke’s 83-81 loss at the hands of unranked Maryland. “I mean it’s been great, we have two wins, but travel, emotional play….” From where he sat, Duke’s impending road match against the Terps evoked last weekend’s one-point win at Boston College, where a rested, desperate and well-prepared foe failed narrowly on a missed elbow jumper and botched offensive rebound. “Hopefully we’ll be ready,” he added.
Duke didn’t look ready, and their upset at Maryland’s hands didn’t look like luck.
Seven-foot-1 Alex Len punked Mason Plumlee lustily, inflicting the one-time NCAA Player of the Year favorite with season lows in major categories. Rebounds were issued free to anyone with a valid University of Maryland I.D., while fouls rained down like insults from the murderous College Park crowd. Defense did not occur. And yet there was Duke with the ball, 2.4 seconds to go, streaking up the right side, letting it fly…
“I thought it was in when I got it off,” Quinn Cook said. Coach K: “[My players] put themselves in a position to win; they were just not able to win tonight.” Admitting, “I actually thought Quinn’s shot was going in.”
Duke has been lucky this year. That’s what the advanced stats say, at least, courtesy of now industry-standard Ken Pomeroy, the ex-meteorologist who casts his Moneyball-style statistical forecasts upon college basketball. On his well-trafficked site, kenpom.com, he offers the following description of an intriguing value called “luck”:
“A measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies….Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky).”
Luck is getting more or less than you deserve.
In the lead up to the Maryland game, Mr. Pomeroy had the then-22-2 Duke listed as the luckiest of his top 20 teams in the country. A four-point win against Louisville; five-point eeks against Wake Forest, UNC and Ohio State; the one-point win at BC; slimmer-than-they-seemed victories over VCU and NC State—Duke hadn’t lost a close game yet. The stats didn’t care that Ryan Kelly was on crutches, or whether Josh Hairston was damaged, or if Seth Curry’s legs didn’t work. The stats said that based on how it was playing, on the court, Duke should have lost more games by now, and that therefore, Duke was lucky.
Then again, since 2003, when Pomeroy started his measurements, Duke has enjoyed a greater number of lucky seasons than unlucky ones—and its lucky ones have been more lucky than its unlucky ones unlucky. Statistically speaking, this is the fifth season in a row that Duke has enjoyed “positive” luck. And in that same span, out of kenpom’s top 20 ranked teams, Duke has been one of the five luckiest teams three times. Only one other team broke that top five more than once: Michigan State.
In other words: Luck is not just luck. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Coach K, after all, are two coaches who are often thought to get the most of their talent, be crafty end-game strategists, and “know how to win games.” The greats, we feel, deep down in our stats-defying guts, do indeed make their own luck—despite the millimeters that separate last-second tries by Cook and BC’s Olivier Hanlan from the huge makes of last years’ Austin Rivers or Butler’s first, second and third last-second wins this season. Luck is both real and manufactured, uncontrollable and summoned, and Coach K knows as well as anyone, living as he has through hot-shooting Arizonas, the flicked wrists of Eric Manor and Brendan Hayward and the collected works of Christian Laettner.
After the loss at Maryland, Duke’s luck ranking corrected sharply, although still suggests that the Blue Devils record is better than it deserves. But Duke is no longer the luckiest team at the top. That honor goes to a team that will visit Cameron Indoor Stadium in 12 days: Miami, who may have swagger and a fearsome beat-down of Duke tucked in their back pocket, yet just survived another coin toss last night at Clemson and continue to outperform their numbers. The Blue Devils hope for many things before that game— good news on Kelly, three victories, the real Mason Plumlee please stand up—but one of those fond hopes must be that the Hurricanes find themselves in Durham wondering: do I feel lucky? Well do you, punk?