San Diego State enters Thursday’s game with Arizona with what seems to be a remarkable streak. They’ve won 119 consecutive games when they have led with five minutes to go. The last time they blew a lead with five minutes left was on January 9, 2010. The Aztecs were up 14 with the ball with 4:47 to go at Wyoming and managed to lose 85-83. It was one of the more remarkable comebacks that season. That was one of three Mountain West wins for the Cowboys, who were pummeled by lowly Air Force in the play-in game of the conference tourney. San Diego State would go on to earn an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament.
It is an amazing streak, but winning the vast majority of the games where one leads with five minutes left is not terribly unusual. There are 30 other teams that have won at least 95 percent of such games over the past five seasons. The closest competitor to the Aztecs’ supremacy is Louisiana Tech, who has won 94 times in 95 chances during that span.
Of course, there’s probably a reason whoever researched that fact chose five minutes as the special time. In Arizona’s memorable 68-67 win over the Aztecs in the Diamond Head Classic last season, San Diego State led with 4:58 remaining, but the game was tied with five minutes left. That game effectively blocks using 4 minutes or 3 minutes as a cut-off. And the Aztecs blew a lead with six minutes to go against Air Force during the 2012 season. So specifying five minutes is critical here.
Still, it’s a fun stat and regardless of the technicalities the Aztecs would appear to be very good at closing out games. But which team has had the most success in the last five minutes of a game, regardless of whether it was leading or trailing?
One way to do this would be to use win probabilities. If a team had a 99 percent chance to win with five minutes left and ultimately won, its play in the last five minutes would be worth .01 wins. This method rewards the teams that make big comebacks or win games that were effectively tossups with five minutes remaining over the ones that coast in with big leads, which any team could do given the chance.
Here’s that list, using my win probability model, and wins gained over the past five seasons as the ranked statistic.
1 Massachusetts +11.8 2 Colorado +10.9 3 New Mexico +10.2 4 Robert Morris +9.8 5 Western Kentucky +9.2 6 Louisiana Tech +8.9 7 Loyola MD +8.9 8 San Diego St. +8.8 9 Mississippi +8.6 10 Michigan +8.6
San Diego State is 8th here, winning nine more games than win probability would expect, so even a more scientific approach indicates they have been very good in the last five minutes, though perhaps not the best in the country over this time.
On Sunday this conversation found my twitter feed.
Took the title when Brad left. @DanWetzel: Fred Hoiberg is the best end of game coach in college hoops (not a lot of competition, but still)
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) March 23, 2014
If you know me well, you can probably guess my reaction here. Look, I love Fred Hoiberg, but how can anyone possibly know who the best end-game coach in the country is? There are 351 coaches! I’d concede that the best recruiter or best developer of talent probably resides at a famous school that’s on TV a lot, simply because those skills are most important to winning a bunch of games and coaches who win a bunch of games at lower levels will quickly find themselves at a higher level. And coaches that win a bunch of games at higher levels are almost surely good at bringing in great players and coaching them to be better.
But end-game coaching strikes me as something that is far less important than either recruiting or player development in one’s long-term coaching success. And one’s skill in end-game coaching is not really related to those other two things anyway. It’s certainly conceivable that a guy who goes 10-20 in the Sun Belt is a great end-game coach but just doesn’t have the players to execute his brilliant strategy or even get the team in position to be in a close game very often.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Dan Wetzel to think this way. You don’t get to write for Yahoo! by giving wishy-washy opinions (or even applauding the current state of coaching). That’s for a blog with a soothing blue and brown color scheme!
Anyway, we can apply the method used above to just the final minute and determine which programs have performed the best in late-game situations over the past five seasons.
1 Northeastern +7.2 2 Indiana St. +7.0 3 San Francisco +6.8 4 Richmond +6.8 5 Baylor +6.6 6 Temple +6.0 7 Colorado +5.9 8 New Mexico +5.8 9 Arizona +5.7 10 Jacksonville +5.7
Other random notables:
12 San Diego St. +5.7 19 UCLA +5.2 29 Memphis +4.6 30 Michigan +4.6 31 Kansas +4.5 156 Butler +0.5 312 Iowa St. -3.6
Kudos to longtime Northeastern head coach Bill Coen. Keep in mind that this method is beholden to the accuracy of the win probability, such as it is, and also that teams that constantly take big leads into the final minute aren’t going to be in position to rank highly on this list.
Also, I’m not attempting to handle luck at all, though over the course of five years, you’d like to think luck would even out for the most part. But games are often decided by the time there’s one minute remaining and so there are fewer chance to measure a team’s performance in those situations. Considering all of that, I wouldn’t feel terribly confident that Coen or Indiana State’s Greg Lansing is the best at handling late game situations, but I think you can have some confidence they know what they’re doing.
One more logical time frame to examine is the second half. This may identify coaches that are particularly good at making halftime adjustments. These are the teams who produced the most wins over expectation based on halftime win probabilities.
1 New Mexico +12.4 2 San Diego St. +11.0 3 Massachusetts +10.7 4 New Mexico St. +10.6 5 Louisiana Tech +10.1 6 Murray St. +9.6 7 Colorado +9.4 8 Michigan +9.0 9 Xavier +8.7 10 Florida St. +8.5
12 Michigan St. +8.4 13 North Carolina +8.2 14 Wake Forest +7.6 23 Oregon +7.2 25 Memphis +7.1 26 Butler +6.9 37 Baylor +5.4 38 Arizona +5.4 111 Iowa St. +2.9
You might feel this list has some credibility in that John Beilein and Fisher are both represented in the top 10, and Butler and Iowa State look a lot better than they did by just looking at the final minute. If so, let’s give some shine to Steve Alford, who coached New Mexico for four of the five seasons in this sample.
I don’t get the sense that Alford gets much credit for being a good in-game coach, and I’d guess part of it is he’s not terribly well-liked by the media (unlike Hoiberg and Stevens). Like Fisher, he plays few high-profile games when people in the Eastern time zone are watching. Furthermore, he doesn’t have many signature close-game wins. Coming into this season, his tournament performance was regarded as poor. But he deserves some credit for his in-game coaching.
If I had to offer up the best in-game coach among famous coaches, though, I’d go with Fisher. Yes, even over Brad Stevens. San Diego State has blown just six of 105 halftime leads against D-I teams over the past five seasons, and Fisher also happens to be 17-1 in overtime games over the past seven years. No doubt, some of that is the result of luck – all the programs at the top of these lists have benefited from some of that. And part of that overtime record is simply having the better players at the beginning of overtime in nearly all of those games. But there’s a large amount of evidence that Steve Fisher is able to break my win probability model more frequently than others, even counting that disastrous night in Laramie five years ago.
But without more rigorous analysis, it’s tough to know how luck could be influencing this list. It’s worth noting that Louisiana Tech has had three head coaches during this time and ranks fifth in halftime adjustments, so randomness may be a significant issue. And Wake Forest fans would swear that Jeff Bzdelik had nothing positive to offer as a coach, even though it’s clear his clubs have outperformed expectation in the second half. Maybe his initial game plan has been the problem.
Both Hoiberg and Stevens are young, likable guys who have had their share of high-profile close games. I suspect that plays a role in boosting their reputation from being part of a larger group of very good in-game coaches to being considered the best. It can’t hurt, that unlike Fisher, those guys have played a lot of games at reasonable times for the east coast media establishment. (San Diego State will tip off well after 10 PM ET tonight, by the way.)
But there’s a case for Steve Fisher as being the current master of in-game adjustments and end-game coaching. And this is one situation where I think a purely subjective approach won’t get you all that close to the correct answer. There are just too many games going on and no human can keep track of who’s making what adjustments.