Close Games in the ACC: Part III

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 12th, 2018

This is Part III of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.  Part II can be found here.

In our final examination of close games in the ACC, we will examine the extreme cases in both directions — the best and worst seasons over the last 11 years with respect to performance in tight games. Then we’ll see if history gives us any indication of what to expect for the four ACC teams with extreme results in one-possession games last year.

Brian Gregory and the 2015 Georgia Tech squad were historically inept in close games. (AP Photo)

  • Most 1-Possession Games – 2012 Virginia Tech (10), 2012 Virginia (9). These intrastate rivals chose the same season to participate in the highest number of games decided on the game’s final possession. Each team won four of their tight contests but the Cavaliers (9-7 ACC record) did much better in the rest of their league outings than the Hokies (4-12). As you might expect, both meetings between these two schools in 2012 came right down to the wire, with each team winning on the other’s home floor.
  • Least 1-Possession Games – 2007 N.C. State (0), 2011 Duke (0). These two squads avoided nail-biters in different ways. Duke (13-3 ACC) won most of its games comfortably in 2011, including 11 of their 16 conference games by double-figures. Meanwhile the Wolfpack (5-11) were often on the short end in lopsided affairs, posting a mark of 3-9 in games decided by 10 points or more. Ironically, in its ACC Tournament opener that year, N.C. State finally experienced a close game – beating Duke in overtime in Sidney Lowe’s first year at the helm.
  • Best Record in 1-Possession Games – 2013 Florida State (6-0). A year after their first and only ACC Championship, the Seminoles (9-9 ACC) would have been in much worse shape if they didn’t dominate their six close games.
  • Worst Record in 1-Possession Games – 2015 Georgia Tech (0-8). Brian Gregory’s squad in 2015 (3-15 ACC) was so snake-bitten that the next highest number of losses during this era was four.

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Close Games in the ACC: Part II

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 10th, 2018

This is Part II of a three-part series. Part I can be found here.

In the second installment of our analysis we will test several common theories regarding close games. We’ll first determine if having an experienced squad helps a team prevail in tight match-ups. Next, we’ll figure out how important coaching is to a team’s chances to come out on top in those close games. Finally, we’ll discover whether winning tight contests in fact does prepare a team for greater postseason success. Alas, we couldn’t figure out how to test for one of the most popular theories across ACC fandom – that biased officiating decides most of these games. For many ACC fan bases, the fact that Duke and North Carolina consistently win a majority of their close games is the only proof necessary that Blue Blood bias exists among the league’s officials. Given that aside, here are the theories that we could test.

Theory 1: Experienced Teams Win More Close Games

FINDING: Not True. To test this hypothesis, we assigned a seasonal experience rating to each ACC team over the past 11 seasons by using the national experience ranking from KenPom – which is derived from average player experience in years and adjusted by minutes played. For example, a team where seniors play every minute of every game all season long will have an experience rating of 3.0. In the above chart we have plotted the experience level of each ACC team along with how that team performed in games decided by fewer than seven points or in overtime – expressed as Net Close Wins in such contests, e.g., a team that played six two-possession games and won four of them would have +2 Net Wins. A trend line in the graph reveals that the experience level of ACC teams has little to no influence on the outcomes of close game. In fact, only six of the 11 most experienced squads in this analysis had a winning record in close games.

Theory 2: Coaching Matters in Close GamesFinding: True (Experience Over Reputation). In order to get a decent sample size for this analysis, we evaluated the six current ACC head coaches that have been in the league for the last six seasons. It’s interesting to compare these coaches’ actual results in close games with their reputations for in-game coaching acumen. It should come as no surprise that Hall of Famers Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams consistently win when late game execution decides the outcome. What may be surprising to some longtime ACC fans is that Williams is every bit Krzyzewski’s equal when it comes to winning close games. Even among a substantial portion of his own North Carolina fan base, Williams is not highly regarded as an in-game tactician. But regardless of whether it’s actual coaching decisions or player preparation that drives these results, the numbers certainly show that the Tar Heels’ leader is getting it done at crunch time just as well as his long-time rival over in Durham.

What may surprise some is that Williams is Krzyzewski’s equal when it comes to winning close games (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Two other coaches on this list exhibit close game results that are well-aligned with what their reputations would suggest. Miami’s Jim Larranaga is highly regarded in college basketball coaching circles, and, as expected, his teams have done very well in tight contests. Meanwhile, Clemson’s Brad Brownell has been on the ACC coaches’ hot seat list for the better part of the last half-decade in large part because of his inability to close out games in the final minutes. With respect to the remaining two coaches in the chart, their results are quite surprising. In fact, no other result in our entire analysis of close games was as eye-opening as the performances of Virginia’s Tony Bennett and Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton. Bennett is nationally well-respected and considered one of the brightest minds in coaching, but his Cavaliers have performed below average in close games. In fact, the tighter the contest, the less effective Virginia has been. Conversely, Hamilton has never been described as a late-game coaching wizard, yet his Seminoles have put together an incredibly impressive 16-3 record in nail-biters over the past six seasons. Maybe Hamilton’s calm sideline demeanor has a positive influence on his players at the end of games? The caveat in the data is that he’s not nearly as good at preventing his team from being blown out – an average of five losses each year by double-figures — while Bennett’s team has only lost by 10 or more points once per year.

It’s also important to point out that the four older coaches on the list are much more successful in close games than Bennett or Brownell. So while we didn’t see any advantage to having experienced players when the games are tight, it could be that experienced coaches make a difference.

Theory 3: Winning Close Games Prepares Teams for the Postseason

Finding: Not True. In the above table we divided all ACC teams over the past 11 years into three groups based on their performance in one-possession games. Since we’re only concerned with how these teams ultimately perform in the postseason, we removed the two teams that were ineligible for postseason play (2015 Syracuse and 2016 Louisville). That leaves us with a decent sample size of 142 teams. To measure postseason success, we looked at how each of these squads performed in the ACC Tournament compared with how their respective seed number would be expected to perform. The group in the middle that went .500 in close games performed almost exactly as expected in the postseason. But teams that had positive Net Wins of two or more did not meet seed expectations. Conversely, squads with negative Net Wins of two or more outperformed their expected tourney wins. There is a slight bias at work here because several #1 seeds fell into the top group and it is mathematically impossible for those teams to outperform expectations. However, even when those four teams are removed from the analysis, the average wins for that group versus expected only improve to -0.25.

This is admittedly not a huge data set so there is a distinct possibility of some random noise in these numbers. Still, there may be something else going on here. It’s obvious that there is some luck involved in winning games that are decided by one possession, so it’s also logical to assume that sometimes the final ACC regular season standings are skewed – teams can be seeded higher or lower than their actual ability because they were either very fortunate or very unlucky in close games. So while those teams may play to their actual ability in the ACC Tournament, it doesn’t necessarily correspond with how they were seeded

On Friday we will find the most extreme cases of ACC close game performance for a season since 2007 and see how those teams performed in the following season.

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Close Games in the ACC: Part I

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on January 8th, 2018

There’s no doubt that winning close games is pivotal to a team’s success. A few bounces here and there over the course of a 30-game season can mean the difference between a protected NCAA Tournament seed in your own backyard versus a Thursday morning start in somewhere like Spokane, Washington. With that in mind, we decided to dig into the historical data to test some theories concerning close game performance in the ACC. Some of the questions we considered include: Which schools perform the best when games go down to the wire? What are the common characteristics of teams that excel in such situations? Is it player experience that matters most or game-coaching expertise? Or is it just plain luck? Are teams that win most of their very close games better prepared for postseason play? We will also review some recent extreme team performances – both good and bad – in games decided by one to three possessions. Finally, we’ll determine if history helps us predict what will happen to the ACC squads that were either very good or extremely poor in close games last season. In today’s first installment of a three-part series, let’s tackle the historical component.

First of all, let’s look at the breakdown of victory margins in ACC regular season games over the last 11 years. As you can see in the above pie chart, approximately a quarter of all ACC league games are decided by a single possession or in overtime. And over half the time, the final margin is fewer than 10 points. This data makes it abundantly obvious that a team’s performance in so many tight affairs will have a huge impact on its placement in the conference standings. Which schools fare the best in all those tight games? Read the rest of this entry »

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume VIII – Final Edition

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 7th, 2017

Here is the final edition of our weekly review of the current ACC standings and team performances where we focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their records indicate. Each week we delve into advanced metrics to reveal a few interesting teams, player statistics and trends. With the regular season now complete, we will look at which ACC teams performed better in the second half of league play and how that may impact the upcoming ACC Tournament. Finally, we forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins and what that means for each team’s postseason aspirations.

Note: All data is current for games played through Saturday, March 4.

Current Standings

North Carolina finished with an impressive two-game lead in the standings to edge out Louisville with the league’s top efficiency margin. Since the Cardinals finished as the #4 seed for this week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn, the two best teams in the conference landed on the same side of the bracket. The Tar Heels finish with the league’s top offense for the first time since 2009 — incidentally the last time North Carolina won the National Championship. This year, Roy Williams’ club used an outstanding offensive rebounding rate (42.5%) to overcome a modest shooting year — the Heels finished 10th in the league in effective field goal percentage (51.7%). Virginia reclaimed its status as the ACC’s best defensive squad, as Tony Bennett‘s teams have now finished as one of the ACC’s two best defenses in each of the last six seasons. Virginia’s pack line defense led the league in forcing turnovers (20.1%) and finished third in opponents’ effective field goal percentage (48.5%). Read the rest of this entry »

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume VII

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on March 3rd, 2017

Here is the latest edition of our weekly review of the current ACC standings and team performances where we focus on which teams are playing better or worse than their records indicate. Each week we delve into advanced metrics to reveal a few interesting teams, player statistics and trends. This week we will look at the how ACC teams have performed in the nail-biter games — conference games decided by one or two possessions. Finally, we forecast how the final ACC standings may look given current efficiency margins, and what that means for each team’s postseason aspirations.

Note: All data is current for games played through Wednesday, March 1.

Current Standings

Hats off to North Carolina for clinching at least a share of the ACC regular season title for the second straight season and for the eighth time in Roy Williams’ 14-year tenure at the school. The Tar Heels took advantage of a scheduling imbalance in their favor this year, with only three road games coming versus the top nine schools in the ACC standings. Despite being generally regarded as the ACC’s sixth best team in both the efficiency metrics and the national polls, Notre Dame sits alone in second place in the standings. With the Irish traveling to Louisville this weekend, though, the odds are against Mike Brey’s squad in catching the Heels. If all the home favorites win their games this weekend, Virginia Tech could rise all the way to the #5 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament, even with a likely negative points per possession margin. See below for how Buzz Williams’ guys have made this a legitimate possibility.

Advanced Stat of the Week: Performance In Close Games

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Inside the ACC Numbers: Volume IV

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on February 13th, 2015

This is the latest edition of a weekly look at the current ACC standings and corresponding team performances, focusing on the teams that are playing better or worse than their records might indicate. We will also delve into some advanced metrics to find a few interesting team or player stats and trends. Finally, we will forecast how the final standings may look, and what that means for ACC schools’ postseason aspirations.

Note: All numbers are current for games played through Wednesday, February 11.

Current Standings

ACCStandings2.12

While Virginia maintains a clear lead in both the standings, and in points per possession margin (PPM), there was some shuffling right behind the Cavaliers last week. Almost entirely due to Duke’s 30-point rout of Notre Dame, the Blue Devils jumped to the top of the second tier and the Irish fell to such an extent that they now are closer to N.C. State and Syracuse than they are to the top four schools. We will examine in more detail below just how Notre Dame has achieved such a lofty 10-3 record despite a rather pedestrian PPM. Of course, Georgia Tech is the polar opposite of the Irish, as the Yellow Jackets own a better PPM than four teams above them in the standings.

Unlike the last few weeks, there are no match-ups involving two of the ACC’s five elite teams on the schedule this weekend. But we still have a few games of high interest on Saturday, led by Duke’s visit to Syracuse (6:00 PM ET – ESPN), probably viewed by the Orange as this season’s Super Bowl with no postseason play on the horizon. There are also two games featuring top tier schools against teams that are desperate for signature wins, as North Carolina makes its first ACC trip to Pittsburgh (Noon ET – ACCN) and N.C. State travels to Louisville (4:00 PM ET – ESPN). Those two games are absolutely crucial for the shaky NCAA hopes of the Panthers and the Wolfpack.

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