Which College Basketball Teams Have Been Lucky and Unlucky This Season?

Utah is sitting pretty at 15-5, but are they actually just the product of a little luck?


It's a four letter word that scares coaches all across the country because of its unpredictability. In a profession where the people who run teams like to control everything, luck has the power to turn a surefire win into a head-scratching defeat, or vice-versa. It can come in the form of a blown call in the final seconds of a 40-minute game, or a miss at the charity stripe from a 90% free throw shooter.

Theoretically, these breaks should all even out by the end of a 30-game season. 

Here, we'll take a look at a handful of teams who have both suffered and benefited from luck so far in the 2015-16 season. A regression back toward the mean is likely coming for each of these teams, meaning we should be able to identify who is over and underrated heading into the stretch run.

To measure luck, we'll use KenPom's algorithm that calculates the deviation between a team's actual winning percentage and what one would expect that percentage to be based on its game-by-game offensive and defensive efficiency. And, of course, don't forget to check out our own college hoops metrics, including our signature nERD statistic.

The Lucky Ones

Record: 15-5
Luck Rank: 26th
nERD Rank: 45th

The Utes have been the fifth luckiest power conference team to date, clocking in at 26th nationally. They're 6-1 in games decided by two possessions or less, including an ugly 59-53 win against Oregon State, which saw them only called for 10 fouls (14 less than the 24 called on the Beavers). Most projections at the moment have Utah as a seven or eight seed for the NCAA Tournament, but don't be surprised if Larry Krystkowiak's team is closer to a 10 by Selection Sunday. Road games against Oregon, UCLA, and USC still await them in the final month of the season, as do tough home contests against Washington and Arizona.

Record: 16-3
Luck Rank: 39th
nERD Rank: 27th

Our neRD power rankings have Pittsburgh slotted at 27th -- a number that will rise if they eventually beats a ranked opponent. So far, the Panthers have been fairly consistent through 19 games, getting blown out against quality opponents and winning tight games against lesser ones. Their luck might just start to run out when they open the month of February with three consecutive games against top-15 teams.

Record: 13-7
Luck Rank: 83rd
nERD Rank: 100th

Marquette is a team that will likely miss the NCAA Tournament despite the luck they've benefited from in the first two-plus months of the year. Over half of their 13 victories have come by six points or less (including every Big East conference win), and they have gone 2-0 in overtime games on top of that. That mark is good enough to make Marquette the 13th luckiest power conference team at the moment. Even with that good fortune, however, Steve Wojciechowski's team is looking more like an NIT club than one that will be going dancing come March. They tend to lose, and lose big, against the majority of quality opponents they face, and with an offense that ranks among the worst in the Big East, their luck in close games should soon run out. 

The Less Fortunate

Record: 9-10
Luck Rank: 351st
nERD Rank: 50th

Typically, a team ranked in the top 50 of our nERD power rankings would at least be on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. That isn't the case with Arkansas, who has seen their résumé damaged by six losses in games decided by one or two possessions. As a result, no team has been less lucky thus far this season than the Razorbacks. Barring a major winning streak, Arkansas won't be hearing its name called on Selection Sunday. However, this is still a pretty talented team with a schedule that gets much easier down the stretch. If their luck turns around, a top four seed and a home game in the NIT is not out of the question.

Mississippi State
Record: 8-11
Luck Rank: 348th
nERD Rank: 102nd

Ben Howland's first season in Starkville has not been an especially kind one. They are just below Arkansas in KenPom's luck rankings at 348th -- the product of a 1-7 record in tight games. Losses early in the season against teams like Southern and UMKC quickly killed any hopes of an at-large bid to the Big Dance, but Mississippi State has definitely improved its quality of play since then. The Bulldogs have held large leads in most of their SEC contests, only to see poor execution in the final minutes of games lead to close loss after close loss. If they are able to pull out some of those tight games in the second half of conference play, an above .500 finish for Howland is definitely plausible.

Arizona State
Record: 11-9
Luck Rank: 300th
nERD Rank: 59th

The misfortune for Arizona State started on opening night with a three-point loss against Sacramento State, and things haven't gotten much better since. There was an overtime loss against Marquette in which the Sun Devils only scored two points in the final five minutes of regulation, and a rivalry defeat against Arizona where head coach Bobby Hurley picked up two technical fouls in the final 90 seconds of a six point game. Only one of their nine losses can be classified as a blowout (at Kentucky), and even in that game they only trailed by one at halftime. Hurley's team has quality wins against Texas A&M, Creighton, and UNLV (the latter two of which came on the road), so there is still an outside shot at an NCAA Tournament bid if their luck turns around in the final month of the season.