There are currently 358 teams NCAA Division I for men’s college basketball. Anyone who follows the sport (at least in an online capacity) has likely heard of Ken Pomeroy and his wonderful website, Kenpom.com, which measures the sport in detailed ways unlike any other. One stat available on the site is the “Luck” rating of each team, which, “effectively compares a team’s actual output to their expected output, where positive numbers indicate greater luck,” as Brett Barnett detailed in a piece for Rocky Top Talk a year ago.
In the past four seasons, Northwestern has finished 326th, 348th, 334th, 333st in KenPom’s “Luck” statistic, and this year, the Wildcats sit in a familiar place at 342nd following yet another late game collapse, this time at the hands of Penn State inside Welsh-Ryan Arena. For nearly a half decade, Chris Collins’ Northwestern Wildcats have been one of the most unlucky teams in the country.
So what gives? Did Pete Nance break a mirror while holding a black cat? Does Boo Buie run under a series of ladders before every contest as a pregame ritual? Did Collins himself strike some deal with a Willie the Wildcat Devil in order to manufacture that tournament appearance in 2017, and, if so, has NU been destined to lose every single coin flip game that should come its way regardless of the circumstances?
Now, some would quite reasonably say that bad luck is a euphemism for bad performance, in which the ‘Cats continually collapse down the stretch of tight games despite having played fine and quite often impressive basketball prior to the downfall. The last two years have no dearth of examples, ranging from leaving Sasha Stefanovic wide open for a game-winning three to surrender a loss to Purdue after leading by eight with only two minutes remaining to blowing a 20-point advantage to Pitt that culminated in Beran helping off of the red hot Justin Champagnie to give him the game-winning dunk.
However, last night felt particularly painful because of how little control and/or fault there was to be found with Northwestern in the final 10 minutes of play. Sure, there were missteps here and there, but more often Penn State simply made shots that usually don’t go in, no matter who takes them.
Like what exactly is Chase Audige supposed to do here, short of blindfolding Jalen Pickett mid-shot?
Or how about just 45 seconds earlier, what can Ryan Greer do besides hit a growth spurt in order to provide a greater contest on this Seth Lundy step back jumper.
“Jalen Pickett hits a step back, one legged and off the backboard — that’s good defense, and Lundy’s threes, those were not open shots,” said Collins postgame, referencing the barrage of difficult jumpers the Nittany Lions made down the stretch.
“You know, a lot of times when you lose, the focus becomes so much on what we [the team] didn’t do, and we’ve got to get better in a lot of areas, but also give them some credit for stepping up and making some big shots.”
Regression to the mean is a buzzword phrase for people who comment on sports, citing that X team is a lot better than their record indicates, as they’ve simply been misfortunate in one score games, and regression is bound to come (see: this year’s Buffalo Bills). Or that so-and-so player might be shooting great right now, but it’s on a tough diet of shots, and you know that percentage will trend down over time (see: basically exactly what happened to Boo Buie’s three-point shooting in 2020-21).
But now, five years since its last NCAA Tournament appearance and counting, Northwestern has lost a whopping 27 games by five or fewer, which includes three of the four defeats the ‘Cats have suffered this season. It’s truly hard to find any team who so consistently loses a photo-finish.
Could it be a mental block at this point? That sounds silly, but is quite understandable and common the more you think about it. Consider the Georgia football team, which hopes to shake the Alabama boogie man in next Monday’s game after falling short to them in heavyweight bouts over and over again. Whenever anything goes wrong for the ‘Dawgs, the viewing public all coalesces a sense of “here we go again” dread, anticipating the same doomed result, and it’s not crazy to assume some player might do the same. They’re humans just like us, experiencing the same doubt and fear that is so hard to overcome.
It’s how many people felt watching Michigan get stomped by Ohio State year after year. No matter how deep into the game the Wolverines led, everyone assumed that a pro-Buckeye break was coming, and when it did, UM would lose their composure and fall into another painful loss. But then this year, all Michigan did was finally break the trend, finally clear the insurmountable hurdle and perhaps alleviate the psychological grip on their team.
While one specific foe doesn’t live in the mind of this Northwestern team, the enemy of patterned lead-blowing is a strong one, and one the team has often said they plan on overcoming.
“We can use tonight as a stepping point, and from now on, I would expect to see a different team,” said Robbie Beran. “We all have belief in ourselves, so it’s just about drawing the line and getting over the hump.”
That last line from Beran rings so true. There really isn’t too much on-court explaining and reasoning left for the ‘Cats to do. Watching Northwestern this year reveals that the Wildcats do appear to be a good, talented basketball team relative to their competition. Yet leaving their games, you always feel like they still have one final step to climb.
Northwestern needs to draw the line and start winning these close games. If “luck” isn’t on your side, then you have to find a way to go make your own.