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Elite Teams Are Not What They Seem

   by Scott Spreitzer - 02/20/2007

This past Saturday night North Carolina beat Boston College 77-72 as a 7-point favorite. It was a nice road win, but it wasn't particularly impressive.

You could say the same thing about Carolina's 79-73 win at Duke a couple of weeks ago. They vultured a cover in the final seconds. They didn't really look like national championship material that night. Obviously, they didn't look like national championship material when they lost to NC State and Virginia Tech recently either.

But they ARE national championship material. We've seen time and time again this year that North Carolina can just crush teams when things are clicking. Most of the country watched them dismantle Arizona on the road a few weeks ago. That seemed like men against boys.

What's going on? How can a team be great one week and mortal the next?

We've analyzed that question from a variety of directions this year already. You could make the case that the entire key to handicapping is knowing what triggers each kind of result for various teams. There are intangibles that come into play. Certain styles of play are prone to wild ups and downs. Even something as simple as home court advantage can inspire extremes in performance.

I don't want to talk about those today. I want to talk instead about how numbers can trick us into making mistakes.

Here are the final scoreboard margins for North Carolina's last seven games. This stretch includes monster routs over Arizona, Wake Forest and Miami of Florida; as well as those four "mortal" games we mentioned up above. I've ranked the numbers from high to low:

37, 31, 28, 6, 5, -1, -4

North Carolina looks fantastic when things are clicking. Lesser teams have trouble staying within 30 points of them. Opponents ranked in the top-25 like Arizona can have trouble staying within 30 points even when playing at home!

Las Vegas wagerers who watched those blowouts on TV, or who otherwise love laying points with national powers scored big victories. But they spent the night scratching their heads on those other games. Carolina doesn't peak every time out. You can't assume that they will.

Check this out:

Seven game average: a 13.6 point victory

Seven game midpoint: a 6 point victory

This is where the numbers can get out of whack for stat guys, or computer guys. North Carolina's blowout margins create the illusion that they win big all the time. I mean, we're talking about a team whose average victory is 13.6 the last seven games. Doesn't that mean they're likely to win by double digits every time they take the floor?

That's not what it means!

It only means that they run up the score when things are going well. If things aren't going well, they're just another talented team trying to outscore their opponents. They don't get to use those superfluous baskets that came against Wake Forest or Miami down the stretch in dogfights with NC State, Virginia Tech, or Duke.

You shouldn't think of North Carolina as a team that's typical victory over the last seven outings is almost 14 points. You should think of them as a team that's typical victory is six points. That assessment is going to put you in the neighborhood more often than not, particularly against tough competition.

Try this. Throw out the routs of Wake Forest and Miami because those are the worst teams in the ACC right now based on recent performances. That gives us this line:

28, 6, 5, -1, -4

The average performance is a 6.8-point victory, and the midpoint is a 5-point win. Those numbers are closer together, and they give you a much better sense of what's likely to happen when Carolina is playing a decent opponent. They're capable of the rout. But it only happened 20-percent of the time in that five-game sampling after you've thrown out the worst opponents (we talked about doing that in a recent article if you'll recall). Most of the time, it's going to be a ballgame.

Why is this important?

That's what conference tournaments and MARCH MADNESS games are all about. Teams who are thought of as being national powers, and who grade out as blowout teams in the computer assessments, are actually just a few points better than many of the teams they're facing. You've got to win six straight games to win the NCAA tournament. North Carolina, a team projected to be a #1 seed, just lost two of its last five games against decent competition and had a dogfight in the final minutes of two other games.

The conference tournament games, and the NCAA tournament games are typically dogfights once you exclude the pretenders who don't belong anyway. It doesn't matter that North Carolina can run up the score on bad teams once March arrives. They won't face many in that month. And, the same is true for all the other teams destined to be highly regarded seeds.

Don't lay points because you've got a hunch a team is going to click, or because you're looking at some math averages that project laughers. Many teams have polluted numbers because they've got the depth and talent to run up the score in their easy wins. Garbage in, garbage out.

Competitive balance is for real. Putting too much weight on rare blowouts will have you chasing illusions at the worst possible time!

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