Want to win a championship? Good luck

"I'd rather be lucky than good."

Sometimes when I'm watching sports, I would agree with that adage.

Competition is so even in almost every professional and major college sport, championships are practically guaranteed to have a large element of luck involved.

The biggest examples of this are the sports in which the postseason consists of individual games, not series. We recently finished one: college basketball.

Nate Silver, who crunches a lot of numbers for the political website, has his own computer model for NCAA men's basketball. When the brackets were announced, Silver's computer gave Connecticut a 1-in-142 chance of winning the tournament. Silver admitted that seemed too remote, but really: if they could play the tournament 100 times, how many times would UConn win the title? Three or four?


But the one-loss-and-you're-out format and the nature of basketball -- where the teams share 150 or more  possessions a game, and any somewhat-evenly matched contest is decided by 1-4 possessions -- means the best team doesn't always win the game, much less the championship.

Upsets are a thrilling part of the tournament, a big reason for its popularity. They also mean that many times the champion is the contender that managed to scrape by in a close game or two of the six that are necessary to go all the way.

In other words, luck.

Take Ohio State. When it played Kentucky, what if Brandon Knight's go-ahead shot with five seconds left had spun out, as some shots that are good but not perfect are wont to do? Or if William Buford's three at the buzzer had gone in? It hit the rim and bounced off, but sometimes a shot bounces up and comes back down... luck.

Think Ohio State might have beaten UConn in the Final Four semifinals?

You get my drift. That's why Charles Barkley, in doing TV commentary during the tournament, said he would like to see double-elimination in college basketball; his pro experience, with five- or seven-game series, far more often advances the better team.

Not always though. Sometimes a bit of luck turns a key game in a series and the underdog prevails.

Take baseball. If they played the 2010 playoffs 100 times, how many would the Giants win? We know now that they needed only five games to beat Texas in the World Series and didn't have to go to seven to  take out the heavily favored Phillies in the NLCS, but do you remember that their first-round series with Atlanta consisted of four one-run games?


With a bit of... luck, Atlanta  might have won two of the three games it lost and left the Giants as division series losers.

That's what the Twins aspire to: not to be the best team in baseball, but to make the playoffs and then play their best ball -- and get a bit lucky -- and go deep. That's how they won it all in 1987 and 1991.

Fans don't like the concept of luck. They want to believe that the champion is the best team, or close to it, with the "Cinderella" upset -- taking place because of a better-than-usual performance by the uderdog, not because of luck -- happening just often enough to lend some suspense to the process.

Yes, lousy teams don't just get lucky and win championships. But amongst the field of teams "good enough" to win it all, the outcome pivots on a combination of playing up to ability... and luck.

The superior team wins more often than the inferior team. But when it doesn't, it might be as much because that pointy football bounced the "wrong" way, or the ball landed an inch foul instead of on the line, as because the underdog played out of its mind.

In March, this realization actually gives me comfort. OK, maybe I made a couple of ill-advised upset picks. But basically, my basketball bracket didn't fail to win because I lacked basketball knowledge; it was because my team's key shot rimmed out.

Otherwise, hey, wouldn't college basketball writers win all the office pools?

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