Gophers fans watching a special St. Patrick’s Day edition of Selection Sunday might have considered the luck of the draw and figured their fortune was mixed.
A run to the Big Ten tournament semifinals, including an impressive victory over Purdue, put the Gophers in the conversation for a No. 8 or No. 9 seed. Instead, they’re No. 10 — and will face storied Louisville, a program Richard Pitino’s father, Rick, brought to further prominence before a scandal brought him down. Win that one, and it’s probably Michigan State in the second round.
Good luck! But hey, at least the games are in Des Moines. Hop in the car and go.
Minnesota fans in general will tell you their teams never get any sort of good luck, but here’s where the Gophers’ story gets interesting.
If we look at one specific measure of luck, found via the college basketball analytics gospel site KenPom.com, we find that this year’s Gophers were, in fact, a very lucky team.
Out of 353 Division I teams, the Gophers are the 24th luckiest team this season. Of all the at-large teams in the NCAA field, only fourth-seeded Kansas rated higher in KenPom’s “luck” metric than the Gophers did this season.
But what does luck mean exactly? In this case, KenPom.com once described it like this: “A measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. … Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win [or lose] all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky [or unlucky].”
The Gophers had a boatload of close wins, including some of their best victories of the season: Gabe Kalscheur’s heroics vs. Washington, a five-point win over Iowa and two narrow wins over Purdue. They were blown out a bunch of times, including a 27-point loss to Michigan on Saturday.
That leads to the aforementioned discrepancy in expectations and helps to explain why the Gophers are only No. 61 in the NCAA’s NET Rankings — the new tool used this season to help evaluate teams. They finished well below several seemingly inferior foes, including Penn State (No. 50), a team the Gophers defeated twice this season.
The Nittany Lions finished No. 341 out of 353 in luck. Those losses to the Gophers — by one point in the regular season and in overtime in the Big Ten tournament — were only two of several close losses for “unlucky” Penn State.
But here’s where we might need to push back against the notion of luck. While I understand that over a long stretch of time, close finishes tend to even out, the definition in this case seems to penalize teams for performing well in crunch time.
When the final buzzer sounds, it doesn’t matter how you won. The question is: Did you win? The Gophers won 21 times this season, and nobody should take that away from Richard Pitino’s squad. They deserve to be in the tournament.
In any event, it should be an interesting matchup Thursday from the “luck” perspective.
Louisville finished No. 301 in KenPom’s luck rating, the lowest of any at-large team. Six of the Cardinals’ 13 losses were by five points or fewer, including three of those in overtime.
Does that mean Louisville is a lot better than it seems or that it can’t close out games? Similarly, does the Gophers’ penchant for pulling out tight contests bode well on Thursday, or will they prove to be overmatched?
Guess that’s why after all the numbers are crunched, they still play the games.