Of Beating UNLV, Close Games, and Underclassmen

Jaisa Nunn scores 26, grabs 12 rebounds as Lobos defeat UNLV 80-77 in OT

Two games into the brutal four games stretch, it has started well.  The ladies broke losing streaks to Wyoming and UNLV, both in heart-stressing fashion.  There were two things that piqued my curiosity.

First, the 78-75 and 80-77 wins brought UNM’s record to 5-1 in games decided by six points or less—two possessions or less.  It seemed that last season we lost most the very close games we played, and I started looking through past seasons to see how this 5-1 mark compared.

The second thought—which I have had multiple times—is how this team is

winning a lot, but to me still feels like a team in transition, one that is not “there” yet.

Very Close Games.

I went back a dozen seasons—mostly because to go back beyond that is more difficult now that they have removed some older data from the GoLobos site.  But twelve seasons was enough to get a sense of what I wanted to know, and I plan on going back farther when I have time.

Photo by Isabel Gonzalez

I semi-arbitrarily chose +/- six points because to me two possessions seemed the limit for a “very close” game, but I also added any game that went into OT, even if the final margin was > 6 points.  By year, here are the number of very close games we won, and lost:


Season W L
2007-08 2 8
2008-09 3 7
2009-10 1 6
2010-11 6 5
2011-12 5 7
2012-13 3 5
2013-14 2 11
2014-15 8 7
2015-16 4 4
2016-17 1 6
2017-18 5 5
2018-19 5 1

This surprised me. 

In the twelve season stretch we have a record of 45-72.  We only won a little over one third of those games.  The current season is only the third one in which we won more of these than we lost.  In Don Flanagan’s last season he was 6-5, and in Yvonne Sanchez’ MWC coach of the year season she was 8-7.

In almost all years, the vast majority of close games were in conference—that I did not find surprising.

I did expect to find a lot more very close games in the Flanagan era, mostly because of the style of play.  If you slow the game and aim for a 62-55 kind of win it seemed reasonable that a six point margin would be more likely that with a team that runs and tries for an 82-70 kind of victory.  But that was not what I found.  Don’s last four seasons averaged 9.5 close games a season, and Mike had 10 last season, on pace for 10 this season, and is averaging 9.0 per season so far.  Yvonne was a bit over 11.  Essentially a wash.

I looked for some simple explanation, but quickly found that a decent correlation exploration would take more time than I have.  But I did check one hypothesis:  winning close games may correlate to more experienced players.  Nope.  That didn’t hold true.

In Yvonne’s first season the entire freshman class left, and the distribution of FR/SO/JR/Sr players was all off.  Couple that with the horrible injuries that season, and I declared it an anomaly and threw it out for correlation purposes.  Minus that season, the other eleven had an average of 56% of the team’s minutes played by upperclassmen.  The three teams with positive records in very close games had/have 58%, 55%, and 42% of minutes by upperclassmen.  In fact, the current team that sports a 5-1 record so far, has the second lowest JR/SR percentage of all twelve seasons.

I suspect there may well be a correlation lurking in the data that explains winning those mentally tough games, but if it is there it is more subtle.


Ahlise Hurst: 42 minutes and 4 steals vs UNLV

Photo by Isabel Gonzalez

This transitions into my other though.  Watching this team some things have been obvious all along:  they are very athletic, they have a lot of people capable of hot shooting on a given night, and they play together.  Less obvious, but there if I look, is that there are a lot of players who can play individually good defense—even when the team defense might have someone out of position and lead to an easy opponent’s basket.  Also obvious, on a negative side, is we commit a lot of turn overs.  That combination of athletic + a bit wild + good D that doesn’t always add up to good team D seems to call out “young”.  And the data backs that up.

This season freshmen and sophomores have played 58% of the game minutes.  Six of the nine players with more than 75 minutes are underclassmen.  The only season with more (60%) underclass minutes was 2013-14 when Bryce and Khadijah were underclassmen.  In Yvonne’s last season the number was 55% (Cherise, Jaisa), and in 2007-08 it was 52% (Amy, Eilene).  Other than the anomaly season of 2011-12, the numbers ranged from 21% to 45%.  If I were to strictly look at freshmen minutes, this season has the most time by freshmen (37%), and last season was second (32%).  If the chemistry stays good, and if the team can be kept together (no loss of players or coaches), this is a collection of talent that can be significantly better next season.  Youth can outgrow turnovers to some degree, and adding university level conditioning and strength can improve both rebounding and defense.  Small improvements to a good team can turn it into a very good one.  Reduce TOs by 20% from 17 to 14.  Improve rebounding margin by two rebounds a game.  That’s five more possessions, at about 1.3 points per possession, that’s +6.5 to scoring margin.  +14.1 + 6.5 puts it at 20.6 per game, which would be 8th best in the NCAA this year.

Of course it is not that simple.  There is no promise any of those improvements will come, or that the result will be +6.5 more points.  Filling the Jaisa/Nike void will be a big task.  Not every player will stay, and not every one will improve.  But there is a lot there to smile about in anticipation.

By the way:  the one team with more underclass minutes in 2013-14, was followed by Yvonne’s best season the next year—fueled by the upper class core of Antiesha, Khadijah, Bryce, and Alexa (along with a young promising kid named Beynon).  Just for basic fantasy comparison of course.