Kentucky vs. Louisville – Why the Data Doesn’t Matter

You can’t predict with any degree of certainty who will win when Kentucky meets Louisville on March 28.

And the reason you can’t has to do with something called unknown variables.

Statisticians love to work with numbers. Batting averages, free-throw percentages, average yards thrown–they all mean the same thing. Someone, somewhere sat down with a long list of numbers and came up with a statistical average, sometimes weighted, sometimes not.

Before last Sunday’s game featuring Kentucky vs. Wichita, I read seven “expert” opinions about who was going to win. ALL OF THEM chose Wichita. What they were looking at were statistics. But pouring over a long column of numbers and coming to a conclusion often ignores the rather unpredictable nature of sports. There are a number of factors which, by their nature, do not show up in the numbers.

1–An injury during the game. They can’t be predicted, and they can be serious. Not only for the player, but for the morale of the team.

2–Illness. It could be something as innocuous as a bad meal the night before, or something serious like food poisoning. It could mean a cold or the beginnings of a flu, both of which could seriously undermine a key player’s ability.

3–Disruptions. Weather is unlikely to be a factor, but it’s not impossible that a game could be interrupted due to inclement weather. A disruption in the crowd, a technical foul, faulty equipment (a broken backboard perhaps), may all seem unlikely, but are not impossible. They’ve happened before. It’s their likelihood that can’t be accounted for, therefore they can’t be calculated in the statistics.

4–Attitude or outlook, by either team. Attitudes can be caught. Sometimes teams get “fired up,” and conversely they can be discouraged. It could even be something catastrophic to do with a key player’s family, causing them to worry or lose focus. Those types of things simply can’t be forecast with any certainty.

My point? There are probably dozens of unlikely but possible scenarios that could genuinely affect the outcome of any game. Just because a player has shot 65% from the free-throw line all year doesn’t mean they won’t go suddenly cold in a championship game. We’ve all seen it.

It’s the unpredictability that makes for the excitement of watching two well-matched and determined teams.

At this point, however much I may want one team to win over the other, it could honestly come down to one point.

That’s when my grandpa would have said, “It might as well have been a million.”


© Wade Kingston


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