Commentary

Unlucky teams rebound next season

Originally Published: October 9, 2007
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

Chances are you won't find a horseshoe nailed to the wall above Oklahoma's locker room entrance this season. It's also unlikely that the Sooners' uniforms will be adorned with a four-leaf clover patch.

But maybe second-year coach Jeff Capel should try something. His club, according to Ken Pomeroy, was the second-most "unlucky" team in all of Division I last season, as measured by a final record that was more than four games worse than what was statistically expected, given the Sooners' overall performance.

We're not talking about a single last-second shot that rimmed out or a questionable whistle that changed the outcome of the game. This is about season-long, unbalanced and statistically improbable misfortune, when a team finds just the wrong time to go cold or give up a big rebound or miss a free throw. It's how a team with 20-win productivity ends up 16-15.

Last season's tribulations made Capel sense something was curiously amiss.

Jeff Capel
Laizure Photo/WireImage.com Jeff Capel's Oklahoma team stumbled to a 16-15 finish in his first season in Norman.

"It sure felt that way," he said with a rueful chuckle.

The Sooners' case is pretty easily explained: Solid defense kept them in most games, but a spotty offense often left them a bit short. Six straight losses down the stretch resulted in a 6-10 Big 12 campaign, one in which the Sooners' average margin of defeat was eight points.

"We had a chance last year where we were in a position to control our destiny, and we didn't finish games," Capel said. "That's the bottom line. Close doesn't count. … We have to be able to close games out."

That halting execution, according to Capel, stemmed from his initial unfamiliarity with the roster in his first season in Norman and the team's general inconsistency on the offensive end. Tony Crocker had his moments, especially early in the season, and Nate Carter emerged during league play, but Oklahoma never quite found the right combination of guys to deliver on a nightly basis.

"Last year, we were kind of learning on the fly … trying to figure out what each guy's strengths were, maybe what things they didn't do as well," he said. "More importantly, [we were] finding out what the strengths of our team would be and then trying to put together a game plan to fit the strengths of our team."

This season, Capel knows what the strength of the team should be. It's on the inside, where 6-foot-11 banger Longar Longar is joined by heralded 6-9 freshman Blake Griffin. If the Sooners can get some consistent scoring from the perimeter to go with a touch of better fortune, they could be poised to make a move in the Big 12.

Or, barring those developments, maybe the Sooners should at least schedule UTEP, the only team in the land last season that was statistically less fortunate than they were.

Tony Barbee's Miners, who finished 14-17 last season -- a full 4½ games under expectation -- had some problems that mirrored the Sooners'. In UTEP's case, though, decent defense and suspect offense were exacerbated by an undersized roster that had a penchant for fouling and/or giving up offensive rebounds in big spots.

Now the Miners' roster has been super-sized with the arrival of several newcomers who are 6-10 or taller. Given the bigger (and hopefully better) supporting cast for underrated scoring guard Stefon Jackson, Barbee has found it more productive not to dwell on his team's close calls from last season.

"It's not something you harp on, because you can't get those games back from last year," he said. "I think [the players] just understand how to execute -- the older guys will -- and show some leadership and pull those younger guys along so they understand."

Like Capel, Barbee remains cautiously optimistic that Year 2, and the familiarity that comes with it, will bring renewed good fortune for his club.

"I think we're in position to have a pretty good year, but I want to keep the expectations down because no one is expecting us to do anything, nor should they. … But when you have a player like Stefon, we're going to [be underrated] a little too much," he said. "I think our team is ready to take that next step, but we'll see. We have to do it on the court."

Both coaches should take some solace. At this time last year, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Kansas State and Oklahoma State were all coming off "unlucky" seasons. Oregon finished the 2005-06 season 15-18 and out of the postseason. A season later, the Ducks won 29 games and ended up in the Elite Eight. Virginia Tech improved from 14-16 (4-12 ACC) to 22-12 (10-6) last season with an NCAA Tournament appearance. Kansas State (23 wins, up from 15 the previous season) and Oklahoma State (22 wins, up from 17) both reached the NIT.

"Hopefully we can get some of that karma," Capel said.

It might not hurt to find a nice Buddha belly to rub on the bench. Just in case.

Here are four other "unlucky" teams (which finished at least three wins below expectation) from last season that are hoping to replicate that same success:

Arizona State
Like many of these teams, the Sun Devils are heading into their second season with a new coach (Herb Sendek), and despite being undermanned last season, were respectable on defense and the glass. Now, stalwart forward Jeff Pendergraph will get some help on the offensive end from Duke transfer center Eric Boateng and highly regarded freshmen guards James Harden and Jamelle McMillan. Twelve of the Sun Devils' losses last season were by six points or less, and they lost their last seven regular-season Pac-10 games by an average of 4.7 points. If the guards can supply a bit more consistent offense, especially from 3-point range, and the Sun Devils can find their way to the free-throw line a bit more often, ASU could surprise, even in an extremely deep Pac-10.

Connecticut
Defense, defense and more defense (and shot blocking) last season didn't lead to many wins because of an extremely inconsistent offense caused by disappointing point guard play. This was an extremely young team last season (and will be again this season), so having a year's worth of experience should be valuable. UConn led the country in blocks and field-goal percentage defense. With the same cast returning, if Jim Calhoun's plan to get out and run more to create easier baskets works, this team could live up to the expectations some had before last season.

Mississippi State
This was a quality team that finished strong last season and had underlying statistics that show they left even more wins on the table. The Bulldogs should have confidence from their SEC West co-title and drive to the NIT semifinals. They also have two of the better talents in the SEC in point guard Jamont Gordon and forward Charles Rhodes. When you adjust for the quality of opponents, Mississippi State was a top-35 team in both offensive and defensive efficiency and didn't have a glaring statistical weakness last season. If they can find a consistent third scoring option, this could be a very dangerous squad.

Seton Hall
Villanova and Marquette don't have a monopoly on quality guard-led schemes in the Big East. Eugene Harvey, Brian Laing and Jamar Nutter are back and a quality incoming class will provide depth and hopefully help the Hall on the defensive end. The Pirates couldn't keep anyone off the offensive glass or the foul line last season, so a change in fortunes likely will be tied to improvement in those areas. If SHU can maintain the same type of turnover advantage (committed on 16.5 percent of possessions; forced on 23.7 percent) at the pace it plays (over 70 possessions a game), it'll have about five "extra" possessions a game in which to utilize its expanded offensive options.

Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast. He can be reached at bubblewatch@gmail.com.