Close games leave much to the imagination, especially in a sport with as many moving parts as basketball. Something as simple as a missed free throw or a block-charge call can be the difference between a winning and losing narrative.
If the moment is big enough, it can define a season.
It seems counterintuitive that a game of skill could be decided by luck, but in an era of advanced statistics in basketball, narrow victories are viewed that way by some.
For all it has accomplished, some of Robert Morris’ success this season has been tied statistically to good fortune. Since the start of Northeast Conference play, 13 of the Colonials’ 15 wins have come by fewer than 10 points. On his popular website KenPom.com, basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy ranks them as the 14th-luckiest team in Division I.
Tulane, which plays in Conference USA and has a 16-15 record, is ranked as the luckiest team by Pomeroy. Villanova, ranked sixth in the AP poll and 27-3, is ranked eighth in the luck poll, while Texas (22-8) is 11th.
Coming off a seven-point victory Wednesday against Fairleigh Dickinson, Robert Morris will face a Saint Francis team in the NEC semifinals it beat twice this season, but only by an average of 5.5 points.
Colonials coach Andy Toole is an adherent to many of basketball’s more analytical aspects, but, when it comes to measuring luck, he remains skeptical.
“It can’t be ‘You’re better’ or ‘You’re worse’ — you either have to be lucky or unlucky. That’s what it is,” Toole said, adding that it is a cover “for mathematical formulas that can’t define the game from A to Z.”
Pomeroy’s luck rating shows the difference in a team’s actual won-loss record and what its record should be based on game-by-game efficiency numbers. As Pomeroy explains it, “a team involved in a lot of close games should not win [or lose] them all.”
This season, those close games nearly always ended in Robert Morris’ favor.
In conference play, 14 of the Colonials’ games were decided by 10 points or fewer, and they won 13 of those. But not all single-digit wins are the same. Most coaches would consider a nine-point victory is a fairly comfortable one and would not group it with a two-point victory.
But the statistical trend held in closer games, too. Eight of Robert Morris’ 15 NEC wins (53.3 percent) were by six points or fewer, the highest percentage of any of the conference’s remaining teams.
Coming through in close, late-game situations has been something the team has done throughout the season. The old school of thought is that it’s a trend indicative of tenacity and mental toughness, the kind of things — like luck — that are almost impossible to measure. But Toole believes close results are just something that come this time of year.
“That’s conference basketball,” he said. “Look at what Syracuse was doing before the last couple of weeks. A lot of the games they were winning were by a couple of possessions because teams are geared up to play you, there’s scouting involved, there’s not a huge disparity in terms of talent.
“We’re not the most-talented team in the league, so games are going to be close and guys are going to have to execute and have poise down the stretch. In a lot of stretches, we’ve shown that and, hopefully, we continue to show that.”
Craig Meyer: email@example.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG.