Hot Reads: Better to Be Lucky Than Good?
Photo Credit: Bill Frakes

Hot Reads: Better to Be Lucky Than Good?

May 22, 2017

Boston had no business beating Cleveland last night. The Celtics had been outscored 247-190 in games one and two on their home floor and that was with star guard Isaiah Thomas. He was ruled out for the rest of the playoffs prior to the game and if it wasn’t obvious enough before then that this series was headed for a sweep, it certainly was after.

Then Boston beat Cleveland at home. “We were lucky to win,” Coach Brad Stevens said following the game, which prompted this tweet from a Skidmore University stats professor with a particular interest in sports.

Turns out the Celtics — and I guess maybe this is appropriate given the logo — get lucky often according to Stevens. Boston was lucky to beat Chicago in game five of the first round. It was lucky to beat the Wizards in game two of the second round.

That word, luck, can be a little problematic. In my opinion, what coaches are trying to do when they invoke it, either after a win or loss, is to acknowledge randomness. But when you tie it to notions of good or bad fortune, it means something else and some people rebel against that notion. But you can’t ignore it. Luck, randomness, whatever you want to call it is definitely a part of things.

Which brings me back to the Vegas win totals released last week. CG Technology released about 50 of them which covers most of the Power 5 teams.

I’ve written a lot about Pythagorean wins over the years. I like it as a way to view which teams potentially overachieved and underachieved in any given year. (Yes, you can call that luck if you like.) You calculate a winning percentage based on points scored/allowed, then compare that to the actual wins. Most teams are going to fall within a normal range of plus/minus 1.5 Pythagorean wins of the actual total. But for the teams that exceed that number either way (+/- 1.6 wins is typically two standard deviations) — i.e. they won or lost more games than they probably should have — have more/fewer wins the following year about 65-to-68 percent of the time.

Got it? Good, because I took a quick look at that as it pertained to those win totals. Which teams on the Vegas list overachieved or underachieved at that +/-1.6 wins threshold? There were only a handful among the Power 5 teams.


AUBURN: Vegas says eight wins for the Tigers, Pythagorean wins shows Auburn won eight a year ago but were closer to a 10.5-win team. The Tigers have a decent number of returning starters, but the real key could be Baylor transfer quarterback Jarret Stidham. He’s the perfect QB for that system and I think Auburn could have a big-time season.

MICHIGAN STATE: This one’s tricky. The Spartans were probably better than their 3-9 record a year ago — Pythagorean wins says five wins was more like it — but that’s still far removed from Michigan State of the recent past. Add in the off-the-field turmoil, just nine starters back and a new quarterback again and 6.5 wins — with a premium to take the under — is too high for me.

MIAMI: The Hurricanes didn’t quite hit our cutoff point, but they were close. Miami won nine games in 2016 but scored (and prevented scores) like a 10.55-win team. The win total (8.5) is a tough call, but it’s year two under Mark Richt — coaching hires that work frequently look like they will in that second year — and if you factor in that Miami was probably better last year than it showed, maybe there’s enough here to give the Hurricanes a longer look.


NEBRASKA: Of Power 5 teams on the win-total list, Nebraska overachieved the most in 2016, winning nine games against an expectation of 7.3. I feel like the Huskers’ prospects to top six wins has already been dissected to death at this point and a clear consensus (take the over) has formed, but that number was at least worth noting. Part of the reason the win total this year is set at six is because of that 7.3 in 2016.

STANFORD: The Cardinal won 10 games with scoring totals that suggested 8.4. That said, Stanford has been too consistent over the years to seriously entertain taking the under on 8.5 wins. That and the Cardinal return the second-most starters in the Pac-12.

GEORGIA: Like Miami, Richt’s former program doesn’t actually qualify here but Georgia’s close at -1.33. The Bulldogs’ total in 2017 is set at eight and they have 17 starters back (including sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason), most in the SEC. Georgia won eight games a year ago, but I didn’t see enough from Kirby Smart’s first season to rush to take the over here.

And, just in case you’re wondering which Power 5 teams was almost exactly good as it should’ve been in 2016, that team was Alabama. The Tide won 14 games against a projection of 13.95. In fact, over the last five seasons Alabama has never been more than 0.91 projected wins above or below its total.

That’s what consistency looks like.

The Grab Bag

  • Good read from Brian Christopherson on Damian Jackson, a former Navy SEAL who is chasing a dream to play football at Nebraska.
  • Jacob Padilla recapped how some future Huskers performed at state track over the weekend.
  • On that front, tight end commit Cameron Jurgens went to St. Louis and earned an invite to the Rivals Five Star Challenge after winning gold in discus and shot put.
  • College coaches don’t agree on much, but they do agree on the current redshirt proposal.
  • Michigan State cornerback Tyson Smith says he suffered a stroke last season.

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