Tuesday, April 9, 2024

On Dan Hurley and Close Games

Dan Hurley and the UConn Huskies are once again the champions of Division I men's college basketball. UConn is the first school to win back-to-back titles since Florida in 2006 and 2007. The way UConn did it though is also astounding. The Huskies have played 12 NCAA Tournament games in the past two seasons and the closest victory was by 13 points against Miami FL in last season's Final Four. It is as dominant a stretch as could be imagined.

That dominant run is also great for Hurley in particular, because he has historically struggled in close games. But if you never play in them — it doesn't matter.

The chatter about Hurley and close games died down a bit after the Huskies won their first title. This season UConn just didn't play many close games. The Huskies went 2-1 in games decided by four points or fewer. The loss was at Kansas on Dec. 1. (We'll get back to the Jayhawks and Bill Self in a minute.)

Eventually UConn will have to play another close game and what happens then is anyone's guess. Here's a look at Hurley's career coaching record by margin and school. A big thanks to Bart Torvik for the underlying data.
SchoolMarginWinsLossesWinning Pct.Pct. Games
Rhode Island1-4213140%27%
Rhode Island5-8172046%19%
Rhode Island9-15371670%28%
Rhode Island16+371374%26%

Hurley's teams at UConn have lost 72% of the 1-possession games they've played during his time there. It's almost unbelievable considering how good he's been in every other situation and even moreso considering how good UConn has been against elite competition. These should be 50/50 tossups and the only place that was almost ever true for Hurley was at Wagner.

Maybe though it's just that great coaches are: 1) Less likely to play close games or 2) Worse in them?

To test those theories I looked at five of Hurley's contemporaries: Bill Self at Kansas, John Calipari at Kentucky, Tom Izzo at Michigan St., Mark Few at Gonzaga, and Scott Drew at Baylor. Here are their results at their current (or most recent) school.
Coach / SchoolMarginWinsLossesWinning Pct.Pct. Games
Self / Kansas1-4762972%17%
Self / Kansas5-8833471%19%
Self / Kansas9-151312783%26%
Self / Kansas16+2062490%38%
Calipari / Kentucky1-4484552%17%
Calipari / Kentucky5-8743667%21%
Calipari / Kentucky9-151122880%26%
Calipari / Kentucky16+1751493%36%
Izzo / Michigan St.1-4684461%19%
Izzo / Michigan St.5-8734860%20%
Izzo / Michigan St.9-151245071%29%
Izzo / Michigan St.16+1603283%32%
Few / Gonzaga1-4512964%14%
Few / Gonzaga5-8492566%13%
Few / Gonzaga9-151122184%23%
Few / Gonzaga16+2831695%51%
Drew / Baylor1-4594756%19%
Drew / Baylor5-8725059%21%
Drew / Baylor9-151155368%29%
Drew / Baylor16+1502586%31%

I probably didn't need to make this table for it to be obvious, but Bill Self is an absolutely amazing in-game coach. The fact that his Kansas teams have won 72% of their games decided by four points or fewer is just unbelievable.

Most of these coaches though: Have coached in a similar percentage of close games (with the exception of Few) and have won more of those games than Hurley. Few is probably an outlier in terms of the percentage of close games because Gonzaga plays their conference season against the West Coast Conference, which doesn't lend itself to a ton of high-level competition. Self is by far the outlier in terms of close-game winning percentage, but the lowest otherwise is Calipari at 52% (Drew isn't far behind at 56%). 

While it hasn't mattered during the NCAA Tournament in either of the past two seasons. Hurley's close game results are still fascinating. Does anyone have a good explanation? I'm all ears.

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