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Identifying Basketball Changes

   by Bryan Leonard - 02/17/2008

There are many places to find edges in basketball. One of the best is to identify changes taking place with a team before oddsmakers catch up. Coaching changes, injuries, home/road play, freshmen stepping up, even changes in philosophy all can significantly alter how a team performs both straight up and against the number.

The most obvious example will be a team like the Phoenix Suns, how they play with new addition Shaquille O’Neal. That’s interesting because a year ago the Suns faced another significant change in midseason. The Suns went without two top players against Chicago as Boris Diaw's lower back spasms worsened and playmaker Steve Nash woke up with more soreness in his troublesome right shoulder. That's some significant starting talent, one a former MVP.

In their absence, young Marcus Banks received his first start since the previous season with another team while Jalen Rose got his first time in the regular rotation in months! Phoenix fell 8 points behind their average of 111 points per game and lost by 13 as a 6-point favorite.

Not all injuries and lineup changes are that drastic, as sometimes teams have backups who can step in and keep things rolling for a few games. But clearly, the Suns losing two key starters like that did influence what they wanted to do.

There are many other situations, some far more subtle. I used this recently in a Horizon League game when Youngstown was heading to Butler. It was a nice spot to go against a disinterested home favorite laying too a high number. Butler entered this game riding a six game winning streak knowing they already beat the Penguins 78-69 at Youngstown State.

Butler has a bit of revenge on deck as they host Cleveland State, one of only two teams to beat the Bulldogs this season. Butler has beaten Youngstown State the last four meetings and 9 of the last 10 overall. It didn’t make sense that Butler would be fired up to rout Youngstown laying 17 points with a big revenge game on deck. Butler got the win, but failed to cover.

A team like Florida Atlantic in the Sun Belt has changed its offensive strategy in midseason, going to a more uptempo attack. Spanning Florida Atlantic's last eight games (seven of which were wins) FAU has averaged 83 points per game. FAU is 6-0 this season when scoring 80 points or more. During this recent stretch of success the Owls have attempted on average, 5 fewer shots than their opponents, and are shooting 51% from the floor. They are also on a 5-0-1 run over the total. Simply put, you can’t look at seasonal stats for a team like that when they’ve made alterations to their style.

This happened last season with Duquesne. Duquesne made a drastic move as coach Ron Everhart discarded Duquesne's conventional style of play for a high-octane attack that features plenty of 3-point shots, a two-platoon substitution rotation and a scrambling, trapping, full-court pressure defense. Everhart alternated players similar to hockey every 2 to 3 minutes. Therefore he had fresh players in the game at all times who are able to run and wear down the opposition.

You can already figure out how this change affected totals. Since implementing this new system in mid-season the Dukes averaged 98 points per game in winning 5 of 7 games. In three straight games they managed 111, 111 and 87 points and went over the total 7 straight games.

Duquesne happened to be playing a Rhode Island team that also liked to play uptempo, so I had a play on the over. Rhode Island was 17-6 over in their previous 23 games and 21-6 to the over after suffering a loss. I wrote, “While this posted total would seem to be high, the last 5 Dukes game have averaged 194.6 points scored. We are looking at an old fashioned playground atmosphere with points coming in bunches.â€쳌 Over it went, in a 111-87 shootout! It's essential for serious handicappers to keep up on all kinds of college and pro changes like this AND to figure out whether this offers value against the spread.

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