I’ve always been interested in the statistical side of sport and sometimes have to watch myself that I don’t put too many numbers in my stories.
Some folks find it odd that a man with an undergraduate degree in mathematics ended up in journalism, a story which I like to tell students every now and then as living proof that your college degree shouldn’t put you in a box when it comes to choosing a career.
But I have always found it useful in my reporting, especially about sports, to be comfortable with numbers. In my Sports Reporting class I always try to devote one session to the use and misuse of statistics in sports journalism.
I encountered a new statistic last night as I checked my Twitter page for a summary of the Florida-Alabama basketball game from a site called, appropriately, StatFix. I learned that the game, which Florida won 83-74, was “statistically over” — meaning that Florida’s lead was safe and Alabama had no more chance to win — with 17 seconds to play.
How did someone arrive at that figure? Well, first, it’s not just any “someone” but sports statistical guru Bill James, who you may know if you’re a baseball fan and particularly a fantasy baseball player. He’s the inventor of something called sabermetrics and author of many books about the quantitative study of baseball, including his annual Baseball Abstract.
Now just in case I’m about to lose some readers with all this I’ll include a link to a description of the formula. If you’re interested, click here. If not, just read on.
On their website, the StatFix folks say they’ve tested the formula on the play-by-play of more than 10,000 games and there’s only one instance in which the team which was behind won a game that was “statistically over.”
Is it any surprise that it involves the North Carolina Tar Heels? And I remember watching the game on TV when I was a senior in college.
It’s Saturday, March 2, 1974. North Carolina trails Duke 86-78 at Carmichael Auditorium with 17 seconds left. Two Bobby Jones free throws and a steal of the inbounds pass and layup by John Kuester cuts the margin to four in just four seconds. Tar Heels steal the inbounds pass again and miss, but Jones is there for the follow. Two points down, six seconds left. Duke’s Pete Kramer gets fouled immediately, misses the front end of a one-and-one. Rebound and time out to the Tar Heels, three seconds left.
Walter Davis banks in a 30-footer at the buzzer for an 86-86 tie in regulation (no three-pointers at that time). Shell-shocked Duke goes on to lose 96-92 in overtime.
After the game a friend and I headed to Atlanta where I was covering Clemson’s game at Georgia Tech that night for The Tiger, our student newspaper. (This was before it was an ACC game). In a hallway at Alexander Coliseum about an hour and a half before the game, we were telling then-Clemson coach Tates Locke, who hadn’t heard the result, about the comeback. He shook his head and muttered something about UNC coach Dean Smith and “sitting at the foot of the Cross.”
Anyway, this is all interesting to me, but I think, as the creators themselves suggest, that the formula may be so accurate because it’s too conservative. After all, looking at the play-by-play sheet, I think the Gators had that game with the Crimson Tide well in hand last night before the 17-second mark.
And the Tar Heels have been on the other end of the formula, too. I think that in last year’s Final Four game with Kansas — the one time all season that I really wanted them to WIN a game — the Heels were done when Kansas got that 40-12 lead, their second half rally nothwithstanding.
Sometimes it IS over before it’s statistically over.
P.S. Leave me a comment if you recognize the movie line that this blog post’s title comes from.