Sports Illustrated's Andy Glockner wrote a piece earlier this summer about Division I basketball's "unluckiest" team, Holy Cross. The crown of unluckiest was granted to the Crusaders based on Ken Pomeroy's "luck calculation," which, according to Glockner "measures the difference between a team's expected record (based on offensive and defensive efficiencies) and its actual record."
What is a game that a team is "expected" to win? We sit on the underside of the Red Line cheering for teams we live and die with regardless of who they play. But we also cheer for teams we barely know to produce a redline upset. March is Mad because teams that aren't expected to win, win. Games aren't played on paper or on stat sheets. Point spreads and odds are for gamblers, established to make money for the "house", not to empirically predict who will win. Of course Pomeroy's not setting odds, but you can be sure wise guys everywhere start off with a similar model.
Holy Cross took on its New England neighbor to the north, the University of New Hampshire at the Hart Center. I didn't check pregame, but I'd guess Pomeroy's model expected Holy Cross to win.
The history of this series goes back to the 1972-73 season. The proximity of the schools and membership in the old ECAC North Atlantic - essentially the precursor of the current America East Conference - meant the Crusaders and Wildcats played at least one game a year until the 2000 - 2001 season. In the spring of 1983, I was a sophomore at Holy Cross and the Crusaders and Wildcats met in the regular season and then again in the ECAC North Atlantic Tournament.
Holy Cross had a mediocre season, having gone 15-12 in the regular season. But, 14 of their 27 regular season games that year were decided by 5 points or fewer. There was no Ken Pomeroy to tell us what their luck index was but the Crusaders were 8-6 in those games. One of those close games was a 66-63 loss to UNH in Durham, NH.
New Hampshire finished last in the ECAC North Atlantic the prior three seasons, but in the 1982-83 season, the Wildcats went 15-11 in the regular season and 8-1 in the ECAC North Atlantic and shared the regular season title with Boston University. The second game between the two that year was played in the conference semifinals at Northeastern's Matthews Arena. I remember returning to my dorm room in the late afternoon following a chemistry or physics lab and tuning into the second half in my dorm room. Holy Cross won 89-77, avenging the earlier defeat. I have no idea who was "supposed to win" that game, but I was excited to be moving onto the finals.
After a 10-season hiatus, the series between the Crusaders and Wildcats resumed last year - one of those close losses that factor into Holy Cross' "luck" index.
This year, the game started well enough and was closely contested for the first half but an 11-4 run by Holy Cross to close out the final 7 minutes of the half gave the Crusaders a 27-23 half-time lead. The game stayed close through the second half. UNH took a one point lead briefly with about 12 minutes left and the game was tied at 42 with just over 8 minutes left. Holy Cross broke the tie on the next possession and maintained a 1-to-5 point lead for the next five minutes.
UNH stayed close and cut the lead to one as Holy Cross took a time-out with 2:01 remaining. Another single possession game.
Over the next 1:23, Holy Cross made 6 of 6 free throw attempts and a clutch 3-pointer from Jordan Stevens opened a 10 point lead with 38 seconds left. There would be no bad luck tonight.
Then it started.
A quick foul was committed by Holy Cross guard Devin Brown. UNH made both Free throws. 8 point lead.
Full court pressure by UNH forced the ball into Holy Cross' RJ Evans' hands. What was he doing in the game? To be kind, RJ, a 0.542 free throw shooter, is not the optimal choice to be at the line to close out a game. The Wildcats fouled him as soon as he had the ball, sending him to the line for two. He missed them both.
A UNH miss, a Holy Cross deadball rebound, RJ Evans off the court. Phil Beans in.
Phil Beans turned the ball over on the inbound and Scott Morris drained a 3 for UNH. Timeout. 13 seconds left. The lead was cut in half.
In 25 seconds, Holy Cross went from closing out the final 30 seconds to, here we go again.
Crusaders inbound. Another turnover! Two turnovers in 7 seconds.
RJ Evans in. Phil Beans out.
Alvin Abreu made the layup off the UNH inbound play.
Three point lead. 11 seconds left.
RJ Evans stepped over the end line and took the ball to trigger on the inbound pass. That's why he was in the game earlier and now. In theory, he shouldn't have touched the ball after the inbound.
Freshman point guard Justin Burrell took the ball and was fouled.
Three point lead. Freshman at the line. Oh, boy!
He drained both. Five point lead. 9 seconds left. A missed 3 by UNH and a Crusader rebound by sophomore Dave Dudzinski and the game was over.
Whew! The Crusaders hung on and won a close one, 62 - 57.
Luck is the residue of opportunity and design. English poet John Milton said it and Branch Rickey made it famous. What it means is that luck has little to do with the outcome of athletic contests.
Analysts and fans look for the deciding factor both before and after games.
Players and coaches work hard to prepare for the season and each game. Preparation, coaching, officials' calls, physical health, mental focus, and talent are just some of the factors that determine the outcomes of games. To boil the results of any game or season down to luck demeans the tangible work players and coaches devote to any game or season.
Which one made the difference in this games, I don't know. It was more than likely a combination of all those factors. I don't know what to call it and perhaps, taken together, maybe luck is the best or only term in the English language that describes the collective factors that determine a particular outcome.
Holy Cross might have been expected to win, but with Justin Burrell standing at the line with 9 seconds left, I felt very different than I would have at a casino watching the roulette wheel rooting for the house to win! And luck had little to do with the outcome.
at HOLY CROSS 62, NEW HAMPSHIRE 57 12/03/2011
NEW HAMPSHIRE 2-3 (0-0) -- C. Johnson 0-3 1-2 1; C. Rhoads 2-11 5-6 10; J. Bronner 3-6 0-0 7; A. Abreu 2-14 0-0 4; P. Konan 4-10 3-3 13; B. Benson 3-8 0-1 7; C. Matagrano 5-9 1-2 11; F. Myrick 1-5 0-0 2; S. Morris 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 21-64 9-12 57. HOLY CROSS 3-5 (0-0) -- J. Burrell 2-6 8-9 13; R. Evans 6-12 2-7 14; D. Brown 4-11 5-6 15; P. Beans 4-9 0-0 9; D. Dudzinski 2-6 0-0 4; E. Obeysekere 0-2 0-0 0; J. Stevens 3-6 0-0 7; M. Miller 0-0 0-0 0; T. Abt 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-54 15-22 62.
Three-point goals: UNH 6-23 (A. Abreu 0-6; B. Benson 1-2; C. Rhoads 1-4; F. Myrick 0-2; C. Matagrano 0-1; P. Konan 2-5; J. Bronner 1-2; S. Morris 1-1), HC 5-20 (D. Brown 2-5; R. Evans 0-1; J. Stevens 1-3; E. Obeysekere 0-2; P. Beans 1-4; J. Burrell 1-4; T. Abt 0-1); Rebounds: UNH 37 (P. Konan 11), HC 31 (D. Dudzinski 7); Assists: UNH 12 (J. Bronner 5), HC 10 (R. Evans 2); Total Fouls -- UNH 19, HC 15; Fouled Out: UNH-J. Bronner; HC-None.