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Can WSU men’s basketball’s luck turn around?

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The Cougars had preseason hopes for the NCAA tournament, but their record so far has not been enough. Are they better than their wins and losses might suggest?

PULLMAN, WA - DECEMBER 4: Washington State Men’s Basketball versus USC Trojans at Beasley Coliseum - Noah Williams (24) Jack Ellis/CougCenter

The 2021-2022 Washington State men’s basketball team began the season with high expectations, with many considering them capable of securing the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2008. Roughly halfway through the season, the Cougs sit at 9-6 and aren’t on the radar of many bracket projections—showing up on just five of the 60 tracked by Bracket Matrix as of Thursday morning.

Still, with that 9-6 record, WSU finds themselves at No. 42 on KenPom.com and No. 25 on Barttorvik.com, rankings that often feature teams in major bubble discussion. WSU also sits at No. 48 in the NCAA’s NET rankings—the official rankings that replaced RPI.

All three of those rating systems incorporate point margin in some way. Only the NET rankings give an actual bonus for winning games, as Pomeroy and Torvik are meant to be more predictive of future results rather than assessing a team’s postseason worthiness. That’s an important difference—at-large bids to the NCAA tournament aren’t handed out via rankings, they are given based on resumes—who a team played, who they beat, and who they didn’t beat.

While WSU would seem to be in a decent NCAA tournament at-large position based on their rankings, they are lacking resume wins that will impress the selection committee. It’s not for lack of trying—the Cougs have played two Quadrant 1 opponents (USC at home, Boise State at a neutral site), and four Quadrant 2 opponents (South Dakota State, New Mexico State, Utah, Colorado). The issue is that WSU has beaten just one of those six teams.

The reason that WSU is still ranked pretty highly on KenPom, Bart Torvik, and NET is that the Cougs weren’t blown out in any of their losses. The five losses to USC, Boise State, South Dakota State, New Mexico State, and Colorado came by a combined total of 19 points. Overall, adding the Eastern Washington loss and the Weber State win, the Cougs are 1-6 in games decided by six points or less, and 0-3 in games decided by three points or less.

You might be thinking, “that’s an unlucky set of results in close games.” KenPom actually has a metric that backs up that assertion, which he aptly calls “Luck.” What Luck measures is the difference between a team’s expected winning percentage based on his ratings and their actual winning percentage.

The luckiest team in the country right now is Manhattan, with a Luck measure of +.233. This means Manhattan’s winning percentage is 23.3% higher than what KenPom’s numbers would expect against its schedule. The Jaspers are currently 8-3, a winning percentage of 72.7%. KenPom expects them to be at 49.4%, so about 5.5 wins. That’s a 2.5 win difference, and Manhattan is 5-0 in games decided by six points or less.

So, with the Cougs' dismal close games record, they must be the unluckiest team in the country, right? Not exactly, but it is close. WSU ranks 351st in Luck out of 358 teams. KenPom’s ratings expect a team of WSU’s caliber to have a 16.1% better win percentage.

It’s not just KenPom’s numbers that think WSU has had an unlucky set of results, either. The website ShotQuality, which evaluates teams based on the quality of their shots—shooting percentage does have the highest correlation with success by far—estimates WSU should be at 11-4 based on its shot quality.

That run of bad luck should offer some hope to Coug fans—this WSU team is likely better than its record. However, the reality is that when it comes to postseason possibilities, a team’s potential carries very little weight. To make any sort of postseason run, Washington State will need its luck to turn around. It’s no guarantee that anything will change because the season is short, but perhaps a young team with many newcomers can do just that as roles are more defined and they come together throughout the season.