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College Basketball's Biggest Key

   by Scott Spreitzer - 01/20/2008

We take a week away from football as we await the Super Bowl that’s coming up in the first weekend of February. My next article will talk about strategies for handicapping the big game and various propositions. Today, we take our first look at basketball for the 2007-08 season. I know many of you are starting to follow this sport very closely now. I wanted to make sure you were focused on the single biggest handicapping factor. Before I tell you, do you think you can guess what it is? Coaching? Talent? Pointspread histories? Experience?
All of those things are important. But they’re important because they all relate to the one key area that triggers most college basketball results.


Right now, team defense is the single most important factor driving results in this sport. The most successful coaches are the ones that emphasize defense. The teams with the best talent only win if they play defense, and are often upset in the Big Dance when they don’t. Pointspread histories are directly correlated to quality defense because the oddsmakers and public don’t spend enough time looking at it! Experience matters most because more experienced players grasp the nuances of team defensive rotations much better than newcomers do.
I was listening to a radio show the other day, and a guy made a selection in a college basketball game. When explaining his reasons, all he did was talk about how great the team’s star player was. That was it! He made a pick because the best player on a team was really good. That’s not handicapping! That’s not even basketball. That’s just the starting point. A team with a star tries to find a way to get him the ball. The opposing defense comes up with a way to slow him down or stop him. If you’re a TV network trying to “sellâ€쳌 a game, then you talk about the stars. If you’re a handicapper trying to predict an outcome, you’ve got to dig much deeper than bragging about a star player. Dick Vitale wouldn’t last a week as a handicapper in Vegas.

If you watch basketball closely, you’ll find that most results are keyed by the STOPPING of what other teams are trying to do. That’s why we’ve seen so many low scoring games the past few years.
Here’s what you should be looking at when watching games or reading boxscores:

*Defensive field goal percentage: Are opponents finding it easy to get open looks, or are they forcing up bad shots. When you watch games on TV, look at the defensive rotations and hustle. When you read the boxscores, look at field goal percentage allowed. I really like focusing on what happens on just the two-point shots because three-point shooting blows so hot and cold. If a team defends the paint well, they’re going to be a good value bet against Vegas lines over the long haul.

*Turnovers forced: You often hear announcers talk about how important it is to have an experienced point guard. It’s important because defenses will abuse teams who don’t! It would help if announcers turned around their emphasis. If they constantly pointed out that defenses are aggressively trying to force turnovers, then viewers would be thinking more about defense. Instead, it’s like turnovers are accidents that happen to inexperienced players. Turnovers are FORCED by defenses. Watch for this on telecasts, and look up the turnover counts in the boxscores.

*Defensive rebounds: This is a vital part of defense because it snaps off second chance opportunities. A defensive rebound is a virtual forced turnover because it ends the opponent’s possession with no points being scored. In the big picture, there’s not that big a difference between intercepting a pass, and grabbing a rebound off a miss. Same end result. This is really important in big games between top teams because each possession is so important. Many highly regarded seeds struggle during March Madness because this is a weakness. They were able to hide it against soft schedules or because they had a good year from three-point land. When the games really matter, rebounding is HUGE.

I promise that you’ll be very pleased with your results if you start focusing your handicapping efforts on team defense. There’s nothing wrong with following the star players as a fan. And, I’m not recommending against many of the techniques you may already be using. I think you’ll find that they’re directly tied to defense in the first place. Devoting your energy to studying defenses will get you quickly to the truths about the game that coaching, experience, and pointspread results are already hinting at. You can’t beat the spread if your defense-less!

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