Close games, luck vs. skill, and why Auburn and Washington are closer than you’d think

In between missing several corner threes at the gym Thursday morning, I posted this on Twitter:

While sitting on the toilet at my day job about three hours later, I posted this:

These results are similar, yet different. It leads me to three separate conclusions:

  1. I would consider this one of the more successful and useful uses of my personally-limited iPhone Screen Time.
  2. That said, the word “decree” is pretty melodramatic. Who thought of this word? Why do we need it?
  3. We treat winning and losing close games a bit differently. If we win, there appears to be slightly more luck involved; if we lose, we did not have enough skill to get us over the top. Also, there was luck involved.

The two test cases for this were Auburn and Washington. By a pure W-L standard, the two teams are having fairly similar seasons in games decided by 7+ points. Auburn is 12-3; Washington is 11-5. In these games, Auburn is averaging a +12.7 point differential; Washington, +8.3. Generally, we would draw from this that Auburn is a better team than Washington, though it’s only about a four-point gap. That’s almost exactly what KenPom says, as they have Auburn as about 4.5 points better on a neutral court before you factor in tempo.

Given that we also know that Auburn and Washington have each played 10 games decided by 6 points or fewer, we would guess that their final W-L records are fairly close. Since Auburn’s point differential in 7+ point games is higher, they would most likely go 6-4 in their close games. Washington, meanwhile, would go about 5-5 with a nearly equal chance at 4-6. If these were true, you would expect Auburn’s overall record to be 18-7, with Washington at either 17-9 or 16-10. Auburn’s better, of course, but the gap is very small.

Of course, that’s not why you’re here. Auburn is 10-0 in games decided by six points or fewer; Washington is 1-9. Overall, this lends the two teams very disparate records: Auburn is 22-3, Washington 12-14. Clearly, Auburn has the Clutch Factor, the all-important Experience (4 seniors in their main lineup, along with a senior sixth man), the Vince Young “he just wins games” argument on their side. If you ask any SEC-based talking head, Auburn Plays the Right Way. They Make the Plays That Matter. They are LeBron, except for all the times LeBron has missed a game-winning shot.

Washington, meanwhile, clearly does things wrong. How else do you explain a 1-9 record in close games? Clearly, their rotation full of freshmen and sophomores just isn’t ready to win. They have no clutch players. Their skill level, despite having three possible first round NBA Draft picks, is just not high enough to win. Luck? What’s luck when you can’t trust anyone on your roster to make shots that matter?

If we’re taking those poll results honestly, we’ve thankfully moved past the stage where the majority of viewers are fully Team Luck or Team Skill. There is an inherent skill in winning close games in certain sports – ask Dabo Swinney or Urban Meyer about their gaudy records in one-score games in college football. Heck, the names you would expect to lead a “records in close games list” lead said list: Bill Self, Mark Few, Jim Boeheim, Dana Altman, Steve Fisher, etc. These are objectively great coaches.

But how do we settle the fact that coaches we also greatly respect, like Billy Donovan, Bob Huggins, Frank Martin, Gregg Marshall, and others, are either right at or below .500 in close games for their career? Were they simply outcoached and outclassed in those losses? Maybe. But that can’t be the excuse every time; otherwise, we would begin to convince ourselves that Andrew Toole – 72-48 in close games at Robert Morris, the highest WP% in basketball – is the most underrated coaching prospect in America. Clearly, Mr. Toole – who I don’t doubt is pretty good at what he does – learned something from going 12-15 in close games from 2015-17 to go 5-2 this year.

The answer to the initial question I proposed, I think, is probably “a bit of both.” Just like in most sports, the better team in a game is probably slightly more likely to win a one- or two-possession game. However, that isn’t always the case. The better team doesn’t win every game, regardless of final margin. Sometimes, weird stuff happens. That’s where luck comes in. It can come in for both the losing and winning team, just like luck could propel a lesser team to defeat a better one.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be an end-all, be-all answer. I obviously believe Auburn’s a better team than Washington. I obviously think they’ve got greater upside. However: I think we look at close games, particularly in terms of wins and losses, in a very odd manner. I don’t think Auburn possesses some sort of magical clutch gene, just like I don’t think Washington possesses an evil voodoo doll gene. To be honest, I value games like Auburn’s blowout loss to KenPom #103 Missouri on Saturday the exact same as I do their one-point double-overtime win against Ole Miss. If we all agree to stop giving outsized importance to one or two-possession games and agree to value a team as a whole, I think we’ll be well on our way to a much better, smarter coverage of basketball.