The perplexing matter of Georgia Tech’s season, of course, is its 0-10 record in ACC games determined by five points or fewer or in overtime.
I feel reasonably comfortable saying that I can probably cover college basketball for a long time and never see that again. But the question that I return to is, what does it exactly say about the team and coach Brian Gregory?
The simple (and perhaps correct) conclusion is that they can’t win close games, either due to strategy or talent or confidence or some combination therein. I think part of the answer might be a mixture of the three. To call the Yellow Jackets merely supremely unlucky would probably be wrong. For one thing, if the team had been 10-0 in those games, no one would be ascribing it solely to luck.
One of my favorite basketball websites, kenpom.com, rates every Division I team by per-possession efficiency. They are also ranked by what it calls a “luck rating.” It’s defined as a “measure of the deviation between a team’s actual winning percentage and what one expect it to be from its game-by-game efficiencies." (That is to say, in evenly-played games, a team should be expected to win some and lose some. The more it wins, or loses, the more, or less, lucky.)
As of Monday morning, Tech was ranked 307th out of 351 teams in luck rating. If not for the strong non-conference record (9-3), I’d imagine the rating would be even lower. (I don't know if this qualifies as irony, but, if you'll remember, Tech's last game before its ACC opener was a last-second win over Charlotte on a basket by forward Marcus Georges-Hunt.)
I’m not a strong believer in luck, although I do believe outcomes in games (and other things) are determined by a degree of chance and randomness. Further, I would say, as noted before, if you’re continually unlucky (or lucky), it probably means it’s not just luck.
So, how have Tech (and Gregory) done in this category previously?
2013-14: 191st out of 351 teams (Tech was 3-3 in ACC games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime)
2012-13: 274th out of 347 teams (2-5)
2011-12: 327th out of 345 teams (2-3)
Not terribly affirming. However, prior to his arrival at Tech, Gregory was often either highly lucky (or effective) at Dayton. His luck ratings at Dayton:
2003-04: 23rd out of 326 teams
2004-05: 164th out of 330 teams
2005-06: 314th out of 334 teams
2006-07: 22nd out of 336 teams
2007-08: 46th out of 341 teams
2008-09: fifth out of 347 teams
2009-10: 340th out of 347 teams
2010-11: 36th out of 345 teams
The 2009-10 team was a particularly interesting case. That season, Dayton was 1-7 in Atlantic-10 games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime. But the Flyers then went on to win the NIT, beating Cincinnati and Illinois on the road, and defeating North Carolina for the championship.
An NIT championship isn’t quite an ironclad confirmation of a coach’s capabilities. But, it speaks into the possibility that chance can play in creating outlier outcomes (like the 1-7 record) that don’t necessarily reflect a team’s true ability. In Tech's 10 losses (again, by five points or fewer or in overtime in ACC play, a phrase that has been seared into my subconscious in the last 12 weeks), it’s pretty easy to come up with five plays that would have made the difference between Tech’s actual record (12-18 overall, 3-15 ACC) and 17-13 and 8-10, which, while hardly overwhelming, would constitute progress.
One notable difference between that Dayton team and this team is that the 2010 Dayton team still won enough games to make the NIT. But, Dayton was (and is) one of the stronger teams in the Atlantic 10, the same of which can’t be said of Tech. As such, the Jackets didn’t have many (if any) wins to stack up against lesser teams. Among the 10 losses were defeats to Tech's fellow residents in the ACC's bottom third.
Regardless, unless the luck ratings have little to no meaning (which is possible), it is difficult to reconcile that Dayton was in the top 15 percent of “luckiest” teams five times in Gregory’s eight seasons and that Tech has been in the bottom quarter three of his four seasons. Perhaps it means that he’s not cut out for the ACC. I don’t know that I necessarily buy that. I think the “luck” described here is being able to win evenly-played games. I think if you can win those games in the A-10, you know enough to be able to win them in the ACC. Tech is five plays (or maybe fewer) away from Gregory’s job status not being an issue. Further, Tech was 3-3 in ACC play last year in games decided by five points or fewer or in overtime, so it can’t be said Tech and Gregory have been completely incapable in late-game situations. (The Jackets were 2-3 in Gregory’s first year and 2-5 in the 12-13 season.)
Virginia coach Tony Bennett was 10-14 in five-points-or-fewer-or-OT-ACC games in his first four seasons and 8-3 in the past two seasons. This is not to say that had Tech won its share of the 10 games, the Jackets would be on par with Virginia, obviously. For one thing, the Cavaliers have beaten North Carolina three of the past four, and Tech has lost all six under Gregory's watch, the past two by 61 points combined. Further, 10-14 is different than 4-18. But, the point is that a coach who loses close games in one season or several seasons isn’t predestined to always lose them.
That said, it’s hardly an unreasonable conclusion that Gregory isn’t cut out for the ACC. The 0-10 record might not say everything, but it has to say something. How much it says, and how much it can be corrected, is a decision for Mike Bobinski.