Maryland: Lucky or Good?

Posted by Jim Root on December 13th, 2016

Is it better to be lucky or good? An argument can be made either way, but the easy answer is to simply be both. Maryland this season appears to have struck a delicate balance between the two, sitting at 11-1 overall with impressive wins versus Oklahoma State and Kansas State as well as a road game at Georgetown. Only a home loss to a respectable Pittsburgh squad tarnishes the ledger, but that’s forgivable given the other successes. So with all of these positives, why do the Terps rank only 61st nationally, per KenPom, and an even worse 73rd according to Jeff Sagarin? The truth is that Maryland’s resume looks better than how well the team is actually playing. Its three resume-enhancing wins came by a combined three points – for the readers without a calculator, that means they won each game by a single point. They also have relatively narrow home wins over minnows American and Stony Brook and needed significant second half comebacks to top Towson and Richmond. Maryland has been slightly more convincing in recent games against Howard and Jacksonville State, but how is this team squeaking by?


Star player Melo Trimble and Mark Turgeon debate their next move. (Andy Lyons, Getty Images)

One explanation is luck. This is a notoriously difficult metric to quantify, but KenPom calculates a “luck” rating for every team based on “expected wins” from an efficiency standpoint, compared with their actual record. Here’s the concept explained in his own words in 2006 (nerd note: “correlated gaussian method” is a fancy way of saying bell curve):

The Terrapins are a sterling 10th nationally in luck, as their series of unconvincing performances contrasts with a nearly-perfect record. On the side of the eye test, Maryland clearly benefited from a game-winner for Oklahoma State coming just after the buzzer, among a few other nice breaks, so it does appear to be an element of the Terps’ success.

On the other hand, good teams often make their own luck, which is to say that they create situations where the odds are already in their favor. The Terrapins have a seasoned and reliable playmaker in veteran lead guard Melo Trimble, and the consistency with which they’ve played well down the stretch of games suggests it was no fluke. A flurry of late turnovers forced against Georgetown and a shutdown of the Towson offense (12 points over the last 10 minutes) shows that the defense can rise to the occasion. But it leaves us wondering why Mark Turgeon‘s defense isn’t always that good? One possible answer to that question could be relative inexperience. Three of the team’s top four players by minutes are freshmen, and as talented as Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter are, playing sustained defense for long stretches is often a challenge for youngsters. It is an encouraging sign, then, that Maryland’s defense has allowed less than 1.0 point per possession for four consecutive games as all the new pieces slowly find their collective identity.

A side note to this discussion is that this is not the first time a Trimble team has been so lucky. A freshman campaign that resulted in a 28-7 record and a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament was buoyed by a sparkling #2 luck ranking — but Maryland finished the season a mediocre 35th in Pomeroy’s rankings. An incredibly anecdotal argument to make could be that having a player like Trimble (or really, any lead guard/proficient shot creator) in a team’s lineup helps forge success in close games. Or it’s a totally meaningless statistic and is only interesting to a nerd like me! Overall, Maryland’s tendency toward slow starts and inconsistency read like indicators of a young team that is learning how to play together. With that in mind, the outlook for Turgeon’s bunch as it learns on the fly is positive, but they will need to ensure that they rely more on skill than good fortune as the grind of conference play looms.

Jim Root (8 Posts)

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