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Maryland basketball is finally lucky. It's made a big difference

Last year's Terps were one of college basketball's most hard-luck teams. Not anymore.

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Last year's Maryland men's basketball team finished 17-15. Those Terps were a legitimate mediocrity, and they missed not only the NCAA Tournament but postseason play altogether. However, they weren't as terrible as you might think; while the offense ranked 114th in the country in adjusted efficiency, the defense actually ranked a robust 22nd, allowing just 95.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Ken Pomeroy. That certainly wasn't a good team, but it wasn't as top-to-bottom bad as its record indicated. At the core of Maryland's problems last year was a 3-7 record in games decided by five points or fewer. If it were 7-3, they'd have finished 21-11, but that wasn't the world Mark Turgeon's team lived in.

The thing about close games, though, is that they boil down largely to luck. Despite common narratives about teams having some kind of clutch gene or being laden with "closers" who elevate their teams in the final minutes, there's no analytical consensus that repeatedly winning one- or two-possession games is a skill. As such, tight basketball contests are subject to a lot of variation – the same way batting average is in baseball, or fumble recovery percentage is in football. A lot of it – more than micro-managing coaches would like to admit – is luck.

The Terrapins of last season had very little of that. Their 3-7 record in the closest of games fueled a luck rating of -.074, with Pomeroy pegging them as the 328th-luckiest of 351 teams nationally. Just six power conference teams were less lucky by Pomeroy's metric. (Read a primer here, but Pomeroy's luck rating is the difference between what a team's winning percentage "should" be based on underlying performance and what it actually is.) The Terps weren't good, but, wow, were they ever unlucky.

Nowadays, it's mid-February and the 2015 Terps are 20-5, already well past last season's win total and marching toward their first NCAA tournament appearance in a half-decade. Lots of things are different with this group's personnel, but the singular biggest difference in the team's records – maybe even bigger than foul shots – is startlingly simple: luck.

The Terps have a +.126 luck rating this year, which is seventh in all of college basketball. They've been even luckier this year than they were unlucky last year. Their five-point-game record has gone from 3-7 to, at present, 5-0, with another win coming by six points against Penn State. No team in the sport has had a bigger luck turnaround.

Maryland is genuinely good this season, and its positive fortune shouldn't cloud that. Even with theoretically neutral luck taking its win percentage from 80 percent to 67.4 percent, Maryland's record would be 17-8, which would have the team contending for an opening bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

But think about it like this, too: If last year's Maryland team (which had a 53.1 winning percentage) would have had neutral luck, Pomeroy projects it would have finished 19-13. If that team had the same luck statistic this year's team has, the 2014 Terrapins would have finished 21-11. The gap between that team's 17-15 finish and four more hypothetical wins is the difference between a conference tournament bye or not, or some kind of postseason bid or not.

All of this is rooted in projection, and it's impossible to be precisely accurate about where Maryland would stand without the good fortune it's seen. It's also not fair to discount out of hand some of the team's late efforts this season, not the least of which were two shocking, buzzer-beating baskets by Dez Wells (here and here) that flipped certain Maryland losses into victories. Having the likes of Melo Trimble and a vastly improved Jake Layman hasn't hurt Maryland, either.

Sometimes, you've got to be lucky to be good, and this Maryland team looks to be good. It's also been unquestionably lucky.