When it comes to competition, luck is too often a factor. Anything from a bad hop in the infield to a blown call by an official can be defined as luck in either a positive or negative light. Perhaps no photo illustrates that point better than Gordon Hayward’s last second heave for 2010’s National Title, which came ever so close to falling for Butler. Some believe that “you make your own luck,” and others will tell you that luck is nothing more than a random occurrence. However you like to slice it, luck exists in some form or another. It’s sometimes viewed as a supernatural force that randomly chooses its victims or beneficiaries, but now we have a tool to measure it.
Kenpom.com has numerous tools in evaluating college basketball teams, many of which are well known to the masses by now. But, there’s a little known column on the main page that actually measures luck. How so? As defined by Pomeroy, luck is “a measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. It’s a Dean Oliver invention. 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).” Or to break it down more simply with a literal example, if a team is involved in ten separate 1-point games, they, in theory, shouldn’t win all of them, nor should they lose all of them. Eventually, a shot will fall, a foul-out will occur, or a blown call will be made swinging the outcome in favor of a team. This brings us to the all important question; how does this affect Kentucky? Surprisingly, I’ve made a chart to tell you.
Fret not if the numbers in the “rating” columns don’t make sense, it’s simply a fancy statistical way of telling you that a team is better or worse than their record suggests. A negative rating further away from zero indicates a team is better than their record suggests. Likewise, a positive rating farther from zero suggests a team is worse than their win/loss record. Finally, a team with an average luck rating is about as strong as their record indicates.
The first thing you should notice, Kentucky is among the nation’s most unlucky, ranking 314th out of 347. This, of course, suggests our Wildcats’ current 9-4 record is not a true indication of how they’re capable of performing. Given Kentucky’s current Kenpom rating (9th), one should expect for the Cats to have a much better record than they currently do. Critics of this system could argue that two of Kentucky’s four losses (Notre Dame & Baylor) weren’t competitive, and they’d be correct, but two of those losses were highly contested until the final horn sounded (Kentucky was in position to lead late in the Duke game). However, with the way Kentucky has played against a majority of their opponents, they are, at least statistically speaking, better than their record shows.
So now we know that Kentucky is statistically unlucky, but what does this mean in the grand scheme of things? The most important thing to keep in mind when viewing a statistic like this is its implication come March. To get a clearer idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a brief history lesson. In 2010, John Calipari’s first team was considered by some to be the best team nationally, but they eventually fell short to an upset minded West Virginia team in the Elite Eight. Those Cats won numerous close games over the season and finished ranked 41st in luck. 2011’s Cats lost numerous close games in the SEC leaving many to question if they could muster any kind of post-season run. They exceeded all expectations and went on to the Final Four while being the 284th luckiest team. Last year’s National Title squad won some close games and lost only two, but a large portion of games weren’t even close. They finished 84th in luck. It should be said that this stat does not determine national champions, after all the luckiest team could win the title or the unluckiest could fall in the first round.
One team won more than they should have and it caught up with them. One lost more than they should have, but they were eventually rewarded. The other performed to expectation and was rewarded as well. This year’s team has been unlucky thus far, and that can certainly shift over the course of the season, but in my mind that’s an advantage working in our favor. Sure the Kentucky name on the front of the jersey gets the best from almost everybody, but many teams will see a “down” Wildcat squad due to its seed, only to be surprised with how well they can actually perform.