Maryland vs. North Carolina: Close games a hallmark of Terrapins’ wins this season


Under first-year coach Mark Turgeon, the Maryland men’s basketball team has only won two games by double-digits. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
February 28, 2012

With just 0.1 of a second remaining in the Feb. 4 game between Maryland and North Carolina at Comcast Center, the Tar Heels’ John Henson flew to the rim for a spectacular dunk.

North Carolina had an insurmountable seven-point lead, so the points were hardly necessary, as Coach Mark Turgeon made clear to his mentor Roy Williams immediately following North Carolina’s 83-74 victory.

With Wednesday’s rematch approaching in Chapel Hill, Turgeon declined to revisit the incident. But it sheds light on Turgeon’s view of fair play.

“My philosophy 20 seconds to go and you have the ball, they’re not going to foul and they’re not doubling you, and you’re up 10 or 15 is: You don’t shoot,” Turgeon said, asked how he manages late-game situations with a lead well in hand.

“That’s my philosophy; doesn’t mean it has to be everybody’s philosophy. Guys can coach their teams however they want to coach their team. That’s totally up to them if they want to keep trying to score. It’s up to us to try to stop that.”

Looking back on Turgeon’s first season at Maryland (16-12, 6-8 ACC), the Terrapins’ scores reflect that restraint. Just two of Maryland’s ACC victories have been by double digits (61-50 over Georgia Tech on Jan. 15, and 81-65 over Boston College on Feb. 16).

And though the Terrapins were handicapped in the season’s early-going, with just seven scholarship players, there’s little doubt that close victories over Florida Gulf Coast, Samford and Cornell, for example, could have been routs had Turgeon cared only about the final margin. But with a short-handed roster, he often used playing time, when presented with a lead, to develop his bench and reward walk-ons for their effort in practice.

Said Turgeon: “I’ve been on both sides. I’ve had good teams; I’ve had bad teams. I know what it’s like when you’re down late in the game; I also know what it’s like to be winning. I never try to score during that situation. That doesn’t mean everybody has to do it that way.”

That approach is partly why Maryland was recently deemed the “luckiest” team among all 345 NCAA’s Division I schools, according to statistics guru Ken Pomeroy, who has been calculating teams’ ability to win via good fortune since 2003.

(Saturday’s 63-61 defeat at Georgia Tech dropped Maryland to third-luckiest Division I team, behind Norfolk State and Mississippi Valley State.)

In a recent telephone interview, Pomeroy explained how he calculates a team’s luck. In broad strokes, it’s based on the premise that the outcome of close games is influenced by factors beyond a team’s control.

“If you come down to the last possession of a game, obviously officials can make a bad call, or you could play a good defense against a team that makes a great shot,” Pomeroy says. “Whereas if you’re up by 10 points, you’re probably not going to lose the game. All the bad luck in the world isn’t going to affect that game. The outcome of close games is pretty random. There’s no evidence that it’s actually [decided by] skills; it’s essentially luck.”

Pomeroy arrives at his calculation by examining how a team has performed in close games. He then calculates what their record should be if luck decided the close games (the team got an equal share of good and bad bounces) and compares that to the team’s actual record in close games.

“In the case of Maryland, pretty much all their close games, they have won,” Pomeroy noted. “For the most part, its losses have been convincing, and its wins have been very close.”

Pomeroy concedes that a coach’s decision to not run up scores tends to throw off his luck calculations, but feels that his statistic is useful.

Regarding Maryland, Pomeroy says that the Terrapins have far exceeded his expectations this season.

“My projections have not been very kind to them this season, but they have been surprisingly good, in my mind,” says Pomeroy, who had the Terrapins ranked 139th in his overall rankings as of Tuesday. “I’ve been too low on them all season.”

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