I once had a forecasting class where the professor gave each one of us a bag of M&Ms. We were then supposed to count each color and report the results. Predictably some of the M&M bags had more blues, while others had more oranges. My bag in particular had one brown M&M, which was the lowest count of any color in any of the bags. The professor showed the results on a projector and asked the class to imagine each color to be a particular product and that each bag to be an individual store. She then asked what the results meant. Some people said that certain “stores” were better at selling certain “products.” My store in particular was said to be deficient in selling whatever product the brown M&M represented. There was a discussion among people in the class about reasons why certain stores had sold more of certain products. Maybe one store had better employees? Maybe one store sold more “oranges” because they were located in a college town like Syracuse?
At that time I had to raise my hand. I asked the professor if we should maybe consider that the results are random and that it would be a terrible idea to come up with a forecast based on these results. The sample size was way too small, and also we had the advantage of knowing that these results were completely random. For example I doubt that the 6th M&M bag opened in the next class would have a only one brown M&M. Generally speaking it was amazing to watch people try to assign reasons to what they knew were random events. Needless to say I didn’t understand the exercise and I don’t think I impressed my professor with my answer. I wasn’t trying to be a devil’s advocate or a jerk, but rather just start a discussion on the importance of luck in setting a forecast.
One of the common narratives coming from the Duke – UNC classic on Wednesday was that UNC “couldn’t close out games” or “didn’t show any heart.” There was concern that this UNC team was soft and the fact that they let Duke comeback wasn’t a good predictor before the tournament. How could a team that let a 10 point lead with less than two and a half minutes be considered a serious title contender?
As a Duke fan I hope that every doubt cast on UNC is true, but I have my doubts. Consider last year’s UNC team looked a lot like this year’s UNC team and they won the following games:
1) UNC 75 – Kentucky 73: “ Tyler Zeller scored in the paint and buried the free throws North Carolina desperately needed. John Henson locked down on Kentucky’s top scorer. Larry Drew II even added a strong second half that helped his team hang in until the final horn. For an afternoon, the Tar Heels showed some fight that has been missing around Chapel Hill for the better part of a year — especially against a marquee opponent like the Wildcats.”
2) UNC 64 – Virginia Tech 61: “Harrison Barnes scored eight of his 12 points in the final 31/2 minutes to help North Carolina rally from a 16-point deficit to beat Virginia Tech 64-61 on Thursday night.”
5) UNC 48 – Boston College 46: “Jackson had the ball and looked to work it into the post, but nobody could shake free. So at about the 5-second mark, Jackson pulled up for a 3-pointer at the key over 6-foot-10 John Henson — the ACC’s leading shot-blocker, who had switched on a screen — and it rimmed out.”
6) UNC 72 – Florida State 70: “It will be a while before Florida State fans forget Harrison Barnes. The 18-year-old North Carolina freshman coolly hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 3 seconds to play that gave the 13th-ranked Tar Heels a 72-70 victory and silenced a boisterous Seminole crowd.”
7) UNC 61 – Miami (FL) 59: ”Tyler Zeller had just enough time to catch Kendall Marshall‘s pass under the basket and put up a shot before the horn sounded. The layup saved North Carolina from a shocking exit from the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.”
8.) UNC 92 – Clemson 87 in OT: “Barnes hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:13 left as part of a 9-0 spurt to open the extra period for top-seeded North Carolina (26-6), which continued its living-dangerously run in Greensboro with another big comeback. A day after rallying from 19 down in the final 10 minutes to beat Miami, the Tar Heels trailed the Tigers (21-11) by 14 in the first half and rallied from seven down in the final 4 minutes of regulation to force overtime.”
9) UNC 86 – Washington 83: “Tyler Zeller scored 23 points, Harrison Barnes added 22 and North Carolina survived a closing minute that included numerous questionable calls to beat Washington 86-83 on Sunday in the East region.”
Those nine games were the difference from UNC’s season being considered a success and a failure. Would people have thought differently about ranking UNC #1 in the preseason if they would have lost even half of those games? If you think I just cherry-picked close games they won then consider that below is the list of games UNC lost by 5 points or less:
That’s it. That’s the list. And that list didn’t change after conference play started. Did that UNC team know how to close games, while this UNC team lacks that killer instinct? Considering that the top 5 UNC players in terms of minutes all played on last year’s team I doubt it. Those 5 players (Marshall, Henson, Barnes, Zeller and Bullock) made up 60% of last year’s minutes and 69% of this year team’s minutes. Are Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald really the closers this year’s team is lacking?
I think that the most likely answer is that UNC is regressing to the mean when it comes to close games. They won more than a few close games last year because of lucky bounces of the ball. That happens. Last year they probably weren’t the best team in the ACC, but they won the ACC regular season title because they were able to win the close games. This year they are definitely a better team and should win the ACC regular season title with little problem. However, this Duke fan is hoping that the luck that UNC had last year was officially put to rest with the ending of Wednesday’s game. I know that is probably just wishful thinking, since I don’t think UNC is any worse of a team because of the ending against Duke. That still won’t prevent me from asking any UNC fan about what he or she thinks about this team’s ability to close games. Sometimes you know a sports narrative is false, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable to consider the possibility that it is true.