The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t tell the Maryland Terps they’ve been lucky this season

(By Nati Harnik / AP)

The problem with “luck” is that it sounds like a bad word.

If you said Maryland’s sterling record in close games this season included a dash of randomness, that might not seem particularly insulting. You could probably get away with suggesting the Terps were aided by happenstance or good fortune.

“How much things outside your control help you,” suggested Ken Pomeroy, whose ratings have labeled Maryland the “luckiest” team in the country. “That wouldn’t sound as disparaging; there’s no doubt.”

But luck “is four letters, and it really fits on my page nicely,” Pomeroy joked, and so his indispensable KenPom site spits out luck ratings each season, identifying teams whose records are substantially better than their underlying statistics might suggest. Maryland sits atop that list, the only high-profile program in the top 10. And as you might expect, the suggestion that the Terps’ 10-0 record in games decided by six points or less is a product of “luck” does not sit well with the team’s stars.

“Luck is you throwing the ball from one end to the other and it going in,” Dez Wells said this week. “We’ve won a lot of games because we executed, and we kept our poise and our confidence.”

“If it’s three or four games,” it could be luck, Jake Layman said. “But when you’re 10-0 in those games, it’s definitely something different.”

Pomeroy, of course, would argue the reverse: that basketball games are filled with dozens or hundreds of uncontrollable events, and that most teams should therefore finish about .500 in close contests. Perhaps teams that get to the free throw line more easily or shoot a higher percentage from the line might be expected to win more than half of their close games; no team should be expected to go 10 for 10.

“Basically the idea is that convincing wins and convincing losses are pretty much deserved, and that close wins and close losses are more due to randomness,” said Pomeroy, one of college basketball’s analytics stars. “I’m not a religious believer that everything’s ‘lucky.’ But if you watch games, there’s a lot of stuff outside your control in a one-possession game, even if you are clutch. Even if you are clutch, a referee could [affect] you, or the the other team could be just as good. That leads me to believe that ‘luck’ is mostly a real thing.”

Mark Turgeon might not disagree. Maryland’s coach smiled knowingly when asked about the “luck” ratings on Wednesday; “I do believe that the world is round,” he said, acknowledging the science behind the ratings. But he also suggested that these things might be cyclical; after all, Maryland finished 328th out of 351 schools in the “luck” ranking last season, when they finished 17-15 and got shut out of the postseason.

“You have seasons where you lose those, and you have some seasons where you win ’em,” Turgeon said. “I’d rather be 10-0 going into the NCAA tournament in close games than 5-5, because [now] we believe.”

Is belief a tangible benefit? Heck, probably not. But you can’t deny that Maryland fans eventually started to believe this team would win every close game  — the Terps won six of eight Big Ten contents at one point, with all six wins coming by six or fewer points.

And even if they were seized by false illusions of poise and clutch, the Terps themselves shared that belief. Wells argued that close wins were more enjoyable than demolitions — “people think that having fun is going out there and blowing somebody out, but what’s the fun in that?” he asked — and he suggested that confidence has real advantages.

“You see guys go to the free throw line and you can tell they’re nervous by just their approach to the free throw line: hands are shaking and stuff like that,” Wells said. “I feel like in those close games, the guys who have prepared — who are ready and who have that confidence to step up there and make free throws and to take care of the ball down the stretch — are the teams that deserve to win.”

Confidence, to be sure, isn’t a very scientific metric. But if Wells wanted stats, he could look at Maryland’s free-throw shooting. In the eight league games Maryland won by six or fewer points this season, the Terps shot 83 percent from the line (34 for 41) in the final two minutes. In those same eight games, their opponents shot 67 percent from the line (10 for 15) in the final two minutes. That 24-point edge almost equaled Maryland’s total margin of victory in those eight games (27).

Other explanations have been proffered. Melo Trimble said the Terps “just dial in when it really counts and listen to Coach Turgeon and just really believe in him.” Layman said the Terps carry out Turgeon’s instructions, that “I think with us, it’s our execution in those situations.” ESPN 980’s Kevin Sheehan, a vocal “luck” skeptic (and unabashed Maryland partisan), pointed to the way Wells and Trimble dominate the ball at the end of games.

“They have two competitive killers at the most important positions in college basketball,” Sheehan said. “Trimble and Wells are something that most of their opponents haven’t had: closers.”

Pomeroy noted that a “lucky” 26-5 team could also be good; even a .500 record in close games would still give Maryland 21 wins. And he wasn’t at all surprised that Wells didn’t see Maryland’s record as a fluke.

“It’s probably not in a player’s best interest to believe in luck,” said Pomeroy, a West Potomac graduate whose father was a Maryland fan. “It’s probably in the best interest for Dez Wells and Melo Trimble and those guys to think they’re very good down the stretch in close games. That’s something you want them to believe.”

In any case, when you’ve set a school record for regular season wins, clinched a high NCAA tournament seed and burst back into national relevance, it’s hard to get offended by much.

“I do feel like I’m one of the luckiest guys I know,” Turgeon cracked with a wry smile. “So maybe that has something to do with it.”