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Why Scoring Margin Matters In College Basketball

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If you've been around us for any amount of time, you know we love Ken Pomeroy's work over at kenpom.com -- by the way, here's the latest plug to go buy the 2010-11 College Basketball Prospectus, which is awesome -- and he wrote an interesting piece on win probability and just how much individual events impact the actual outcome of a game.

If you're not familiar with win probability, it's simply this: What are a team's chances of winning at any given point in a game as determined by the current score and time remaining?

His piece was based around a specific game last week, in which a questionable intentional foul call in the BYU/Utah State game led to a big swing in win probability in favor of the Cougars. You can read all about it here, but that's not the point I want to put out there for you.

No, here's the money quote as it relates to WSU:

"This, by the way, illustrates why scoring margin is such a good predictor of future performance. If you are consistently dominating opponents, things outside of your control like officiating have little impact on your chance of winning. If you are constantly in close games, then you'll often need some help to win. ...

"If you are three points down with two minutes to go, to some degree your chances of winning are at the mercy of the officials, and they will make mistakes. When Verne Harris, one of the better officials in the country, betrays you, it's another indication of how events outside your team's control can contribute to the outcome of a game. And that's why the truly great teams avoid putting themselves in that position very often."    

Every referee who has ever worked a WSU/Oregon game says hello.

That's why scoring margin is such a good predictor of future success. It's not perfect -- after all, the Cougs beat the crap out of most of their nonconference competition last year. However, Pomeroy suggested there might be some issues forthcoming for the Cougs in the conference schedule because they were still only barely inside his top 100 after beating LSU. 

Why? Because his efficiency figures on the team pages that are used for his rankings are schedule adjusted, and his system recognized that the defense was not performing all that well against competition that was weaker than we realized. Many of you remember that last season featured close wins against Eastern Washington, Idaho and Air Force. Most of the other blowout wins included superlative offensive performances, but the Cougs were regularly allowing around a point per possession to weak teams. Predictably, the team struggled in the conference defensively, and when the offense went south ... well, we all know what happened.

This will be important to keep an eye on as things move forward. Right now, his efficiency figures on the 2010-2011 team page are a mixture of actual results and preseason calculations (which will diminish in influence with each successive game until disappearing completely in late January). So far, so good with the defense, and the offense figures to jump up when the Cougs start hitting some 3s with regularity. 

But keep an eye on those scoring margins and how they come about. The Cougs needed a run to separate themselves from Idaho, which isn't a good thing. If this team is as good as we think it can be, it should handle Portland tomorrow night. If the Cougs struggle to closer-than-expected wins (or, god forbid, losses) against Portland, Fresno State or Sacramento State, that might be an indicator of issues. 

Or maybe it just means we miss Reggie Moore