I did this last year, and looking back on it, it was revealing. You can read last year’s editions of the luckiest and unluckiest teams from 2004 and judge for yourself. Just ignore my comments about Florida State.
If you don’t know what the Pythagorean method is, then you’ll have to read the 2004 write-ups. All I am doing is subtracting a team’s expected winning percentage from its actual conference winning percentage based on its points scored and allowed during conference play. I have decided to rank the teams by winning percentage difference, instead of by win difference. This is so the system is not biased towards conferences that play a lot of conference games.
These are the teams whose actual conference regular-season record was exceeded by their expected record the most. You could say luck went against these teams the most. The numbers are winning percentage difference followed by actual conference record.
1 Utah St. -0.185 (13- 5) 2 Northern Arizona -0.171 ( 4-10) 3 Campbell -0.167 ( 0-20) 4 Middle Tennessee -0.158 ( 7- 7) 5 Providence -0.156 ( 4-12) 6 Nicholls St. -0.155 ( 1-15) 7 High Point -0.155 ( 7- 9) 8 Princeton -0.152 ( 6- 8) 9 Hawaii -0.150 ( 7-11) 10 East Tennessee St. -0.138 ( 4-12) 11 South Carolina St. -0.132 (11- 7) 12 New Mexico St. -0.131 ( 1-14) 13 Jacksonville St. -0.130 ( 2-14) 14 Louisiana Monroe -0.130 ( 2-14) 15 Purdue -0.127 ( 3-13) 16 Vanderbilt -0.125 ( 8- 8) 17 Tulsa -0.122 ( 5-13) 18 Loyola Marymount -0.118 ( 3-11) 19 Memphis -0.116 ( 9- 7) 20 Arkansas Pine Bluff -0.116 ( 5-13)
For predictive purposes, one needs to take the data in context. If a team is decimated by graduation and other defections, then the fact they were unlucky last season is not useful when looking ahead. But teams with some continuity heading into next season can generally be expected to improve a little more than expected. Two teams I’d like to discuss from this list are Purdue and Utah State.
Matt Painter has a lot to thank Gene Keady for. Mainly for setting the bar real low with talent that didn’t match the dismal season of year ago. Painter is a guy that guided a mid-major with few expectations to the top 15 during his only season as a head coach, so it’s not like he goes to bed at night wondering if he’s good enough for this job. But nonetheless, he has a nice situation in which to get his feet wet in the Big Ten, which hasn’t exactly treated young coaches well in recent years.
Purdue’s record last season was 7-21, and it was ugly at times. But the non-conference schedule featured Cincinnati, NC State, Memphis, and Oklahoma. Then there was brilliant idea of scheduling eventual sweet sixteen participant Wisconsin-Milwaukee smack dab in the middle of the conference season. The Big Ten office gave Keady one hell of going away gift, also. In the Big Ten, you face six conference foes twice, and the other four once. The six teams Purdue played twice? First place Illinois, second place Michigan State, third place Wisconsin, co-fourths Indiana and Minnesota, and seventh place Iowa. It was just about as tough of a conference schedule as could be devised. Despite this, the Boilermakers played like a 5-11 team, better than Michigan and Northwestern which finished ahead of them.
But wait, there’s more.
Superstar Carl Landry missed the last two and a half regular season games due to injury. During that time, Purdue was outscored 189-128. Granted, most of that involved games at Illinois and at Wisconsin that would have been unwinnable anyway, but considering Landry missed 15% of the conference season, Purdue’s expected winning percentage looks that much better.
Painter wisely scheduled a few more non-conference wins this season. The Big Ten schedule has to get easier. Painter has a solid group of new players coming in. If Landry’s knee recovers fully (not a trivial matter) and Purdue avoids other forms of bad luck, a .500 conference record and an NIT bid is a realistic goal.
Utah State is a team I wrote volumes about on the eve of the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies are to me what the Oakland A’s are to the baseball sabermetric community. Just like a segment of the baseball statheads hopes the A’s succeed to justify their own theories, so will I be pulling for Utah State to support their gaudy efficiency numbers from last season. As you can see from the list, it’s rare for teams that win as much as USU to get where they are despite bad luck. The Aggies had far and away the best record among the unlucky teams – and they were the unluckiest of them all.
It’s easy to explain their perch among the unluckiest teams in conference, each of their wins was dominant, and the losses were close. In fact, this extends to the rest of their schedule. They won 24 games, and save for two games that they won by seven points each, all of their wins were by double digits. Of their seven losses, only the season-ender to Arizona was by more than seven points. Basically every game that was decided in the final minute went against Utah State, including the memorable February 12th collapse against Pacific.
Taking USU’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies from 2005, their expected winning percentage places them 24th among all division 1 teams. No, I don’t think they were that good. This is a team that lost to IPFW and Idaho, after all. The Aggies numbers were inflated by playing especially well in garbage time. However, I also don’t think they were as bad as the 14th seed that the selection committee gave them. Though this was probably done as a punishment for USU’s stubbornness in maintaining a weak non-conference schedule outside of the government-mandated game against Utah.
Perhaps the least competition expected for the top spot in any conference is in the WAC. There’s not a soul associated with the conference that will pick against Nevada. The Wolf Pack are the prohibitive favorite, due in equal parts to the return of reigning WAC player of the year Nick Fazekas, and the talent hit the WAC took by losing UTEP, Rice, and SMU to Conference USA. This leaves a free-for-all in the chase for second, with all but newcomers Idaho and New Mexico State feeling capable.
Utah State is also capable, despite losing point-forward Spencer Nelson to the professional ranks. A lot will depend on how scorer Nate Harris and gunner Jaycee Carroll adapt to increased attention from the defense due to Nelson’s absence. Both fared well against Arizona, a game where Nelson was ineffective as he struggled with his health.
If Utah State plays 2006 the way their 2005 stats suggest, there won’t be any competition for second in the WAC, either. And with a little luck, there will be some competition for first.