In a tribute to my pal since the mid-1990s in the newspaper biz – starting in the Weasel’s Den at the State Press (Arizona State University’s former daily newspaper) – I will be showcasing old stories from my career.
Here is one from the Wilson Times newspaper in Wilson, North Carolina. It ran on January 31, 2013 …
76-68: Bulldogs’ 3-peat one for the ages
The odds must be astronomical, right?
We’ve all said it or heard it when something abnormal happens during a sporting event.
A play, a shot or a feat no one has ever seen before.
But really, what are the odds?
I started thinking about this Saturday night when I saw the score of the Barton-Erskine men’s basketball game.
Sure, nothing about the score is exceptional.
“We’re just glad we won the game,” Barton coach Ron Lievense said. “The scores are irrelevant.”
However, under closer scrutiny, the score fits the definition of exceptional to a tee.
Because the Bulldogs have won by that exact score each of the past three games — Saturday
night, Jan. 24 at Queens University of Charlotte and Jan. 21 against Pfeiffer.
“Huh?” I thought to myself as I sat on my couch. “Wonder what the odds of that are?”
So, I started asking.
Friends said things like “Probably a better chance to win the Powerball” or “A zillion to one.”
Not exactly scientific.
At work, I reached out to some mathematicians. A wonderful thing about the Internet. These
folks are at your fingertips.
The first reply came from right here in Wilson, as Barton professor Zhixiong Cai emailed me.
I asked him “What are the odds of this happening?”
“Hi, Randy. From statistics point of view (I’ve taught stats for 27 years), the scores of each game is determined by many factors. No one can predict, or control on exact scores of a fair game. For three consecutive 76-68 scores you mentioned, I’d say it’s an interesting coincidence, and by chance only.”
I sank a bit. I took many stats classes back in college, but I had hoped for a large-digit number as an answer. No an “it’s all chance” one.
He continued saying you can look at the odds of one team winning over the other based on track records.
This gave me hope.
A quick look at the averages for the Bulldogs this year and it’s amazing. Barton scores 79.6 a game, while their opponents average 71.7. Pretty close to 76-68.
And heck, Barton topped Shaw 77-67 back in December. Really close.
Soon after I finished those calculations, my email pinged.
This one came from Joseph A. Gallian, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Duluth.
Gillian helped edit a book called “Mathematics and Sports”, so if anyone could help me out, he’d be the guy, right?
His second sentence was “there is no exact answer.”
I sank a bit again.
But, he continued saying that his friend Rick Cleary, “can give you an exact answer by making some reasonable assumptions.”
Cleary teaches a math and sports course at Bentley University in Massachusetts. Bentley, coincidentally, was in the Division II Final Four in 2007 when the Bulldogs won the school’s lone NCAA title.
He took a quick stab at my question “What are the odds?”
“We can see this season, (Barton) has consistently scored 70-95 points a game with only a few outliers just outside those boundaries,” he said in an email. “It’s a reasonable guess to assume that the probability that Barton scores 76 points in a game is about 1/25. Likewise for an opponent scoring 68, also 1/25.”
He used Barton’s probability of winning each game at 90 percent.
Something Lievense certainly would beg to differ.
“That was a huge week for us,” the coach said. “After two long road trips, we have three very good teams on Monday, Thursday and Saturday. It’s a very hard turnaround and one I wish the league would not do.”
But back to the odds.
Using Cleary’s numbers, the odds are .000002 that Barton wins those three in a row by the same score. Or about two in a million.
If you use an 80 percent chance of winning it falls to .0000013 and 70 percent falls to .0000008.
Needless to say, the chances were pretty slim.
I called Cleary to make sure I was reading the numbers right.
My statistics grades in college ranged from a C-minus on up, so it was the prudent thing to do.
“Changing the probability of winning would change it, yes, but not the magnitude,” he said.
Sweet, my math chops are still good, I thought.
He said that there are approximately 1,000 NCAA men’s basketball teams in Divisions I, II and III, and the numbers say it will happen to some team once every FIFTEEN years, but the odds it would happen to your team (aka, Barton) specifically are once every 15,000 years.
“That’s definitely mind-boggling,” Barton junior Jarrett Jernigan said on Tuesday. “With all the good teams you play, it’s unfathomable really.”
None of the players interviewed on Tuesday had ever played two straight games with the same score, let alone three. Not at Barton. Not in high school. Not even in pee wee leagues.
It was the talk of practice on Monday.
“It’s pretty crazy,” freshman Chris Flemmings said. “We were all laughing about it. I’ve never seen anything like it. Not even close.”
And those in attendance Saturday for No. 3 almost didn’t see it.
Senior forward Jon Hart scored a layup with 2 seconds left for the exact match, but he wasn’t supposed to.
“I had put up the hold sign,” Lievense said, remarking the game was already decided.
Hart smiled when asked about it.
“I wanted to dunk it, but I didn’t want to get undercut. So I just laid it in,” he said. “Coach might have
signaled for us to not shoot, but I didn’t see it.”
Cleary said that’s not surprising none of the players have experienced it. But someone out there has seen it happen.
“My guess is yes, it has happened to another team out there in my lifetime,” he said. “I’m in my 50s and while I don’t know, the numbers say it probably has.”
My last question for the PhD is probably the one you’re wondering, if you made it this far.
“What are the chances Barton beats Mount Olive by that score on Thursday?”
The answer by Cleary, who on Monday gave his class at Bentley a homework assignment to try and answer my question was: “About 1 in 1,000. So, if I could bet $1 to win $1,000, it would be a good bet.”
For Jernigan, one more 76-68 game would be nice. He’d rather it come in April though.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if we get to the NCAA championship and win by that score?” he said.
“Now that would be crazy.”