Fun stats have their place. They can perk you up when the world’s got you down. I’m not above wheeling and dealing some fun factoids from time to time. For instance, I bet you didn’t know that the team that has gone the longest without playing an overtime is North Florida. The Ospreys have played 97 consecutive games without going beyond regulation. That is some fun, right there.
Where fun stats become a dangerous tool of the establishment is when they are used to support narratives. That totally takes the fun out of them. I hope nobody would suggest that North Florida is going to play another 97 games without an overtime. We can marvel at the improbability of a team going 97 games without an overtime like we marvel at the moon entering the Waxing Gibbous phase. One can appreciate both of those things and at the same time accept that each has no meaning with respect to the future overtime chances of North Florida.
One stat that had me thinking the past few days was the one making the rounds about Maryland being 30-7 in games decided by six points or less over the past three seasons. Is this simply a fun stat or does it tell us something about Maryland’s ability to win close games going forward?
(It is true that Maryland is actually 30-8 in such games having lost by six points to Penn State Tuesday night, but I come here not to spike footballs about Maryland’s recent losses. The Terps will win more games and things will feel better for their fans than they do right now. Anyway, it takes me a long time to write things and much of this was written before the Penn State game. Let’s continue, with all future references to anyone’s record taken from before Tuesday’s action.)
Something the critical thinker should be wary of is the threshold chosen for such a stat. In this case, the threshold is six points, which strikes me as an odd choice for assessing close-game ability. If you, the curious fan, were truly interested in how a particular basketball team performed in close games, I don’t think you would immediately choose six points as your threshold. Two or three, maybe four, but six? Some six-point games might come down to the last few seconds, but for the most part six-point games are more than one or two crucial plays away from flipping the result.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this fun stat uses six points as its cut-off and Maryland happens to have an incredible record in games decided by exactly six points. Prior to the Penn State game, they had won all 10 of those games over the past three seasons. Furthermore, they are 6-1 in games decided by exactly five points, so the Terps were a ridiculous 16-1 in games decided by five or six points.
Nobody in college basketball can really touch this over the same time span. Auburn is 8-0 in such games and Belmont is 10-1. Monmouth and Oregon are each 9-1. Elon is 13-2. But Maryland is the undisputed king of the five- or six-point game.
That leaves the Terps 14-6 in games decided by four points or less over the past three seasons. That doesn’t look as nice as 30-7 but it’s still quite good, tied for 17th in the country with the same record as Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, UNC Wilmington, Valparaiso, and Wright State. Right behind DePaul and Auburn. And everyone is chasing Houston Baptist, who is 10-2 over that time.
It’s a weird list of teams ahead of Maryland. Some have been pretty decent – there’s Providence and Oregon and Miami FL – and some are completely random like those mentioned above and also Tennessee-Martin, Sacramento State and Fresno State. Which should tell you something about the utility of this particular stat.
That’s not to say there isn’t something to Maryland having more skill than most in close games. I’m not here to adjudicate the presence of luck versus skill at the end of games. That’s been attempted publicly many times and in 2017 everyone understands that’s best left to a private discussion among the special subset of stat-nerds that don’t use deodorant.
Maybe there’s something special about Maryland that makes their close game record more useful for evaluative purposes than any of those other teams. But I’m concerned that people selling Maryland as having extraordinary skill in close games are perhaps overconfident in their ability to identify such a trait. If indeed Maryland has it, it is an exceedingly rare skill. One that Houston Baptist or Auburn or Tennessee-Martin or just about every team ahead of Maryland in the close-game record leaderboard presumably doesn’t possess.
This isn’t me debating whether Melo Trimble embraces pressure. I’m sure he does and I’m sure more close wins are in Trimble’s future. This is more about your humble author advocating for responsible use of fun stats. Maryland’s record in close games is very good, but maybe people wouldn’t be so quick to attribute superhuman skill to the Terps if they knew that a few less famous teams have also produced a solid record in games that were truly decided on the final possession or two.