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Handicapping Championships

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/30/2008

With college basketball’s Final Four coming up this weekend, and the NBA playoffs just around the corner, I thought this would be a good time to discuss ways to uncover the “intangiblesâ€쳌 that make up a champion.

You hear TV analysts talk about this all the time. Most of them are former coaches and players, though. So, they talk about guts, determination, and the kind of stuff they want to believe about themselves as people. Seriously, do you know how many championships Billy Packer or Dick Vitale won? They keep telling you Duke is championship material every year even though that hasn’t really been true for some time now.

What makes a champion? Are there handicapping techniques we can use to help uncover championship material? This isn’t just a trivial exercise. If you can recognize winners, you can make money by betting on them. You’ve probably heard that the team who wins straight up covers the game most of the time in important contests. Most of the spreads are so small they come into play less than is realized.

I’m sure you remember that the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship last year. Many thought they were championship material coming into the postseason. They were certainly heavy favorites to win their series against Denver, Utah, and Cleveland. Phoenix was going to be a challenge in the second round. Once they cleared that hurdle they were consensus favorites to win the trophy. San Antonio was 14-5-1 ATS in last year’s playoffs…even though it was already understood they were championship material!

The Florida Gators were defending national champions last year, and had everybody back who mattered. Everybody knew they were championship material heading into the postseason. Florida was 7-2 ATS in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.

This isn’t a case of, “after the fact,â€쳌 going back and seeing how champions performed ATS. Both of these teams were known champions GOING INTO last year’s postseason, and posted a combined 21-7-1 ATS record.

There is value to exploit in the lines if you’re focused on the right things.
In my mind, these are the keys handicappers should look for when trying to determine of a team has the right stuff to win a title.

*DEFENSE: Championships in all sports are won with defense. It’s almost an inherent characteristic of elite teams. And, folks, it’s just not that hard to do some research and find out who the best defenses are! Football stats are easy to find. Basketball stats are easy to find. There’s so much baseball information on the internet now its unbelievable.

*TEAMWORK: This can manifest itself in different ways depending on the sport. In basketball, defense is already a team effort. It’s all about rotations and positioning. In both the colleges and the pro’s good defenses are telling you about the importance of teamwork. Many of these squads have offenses that work in unison too. You can study assist totals, shooting percentages, and scoring balance to get a read on this. In football, I’ve found that teams with the top defenses often have great overall chemistry. Sure, there are a few exceptions. You almost never see a team with a poor defense have great chemistry though. Everybody’s yelling at each other, and the offensive guys start worrying about their stats. I love seeing football offenses with a lot of different guys involved. Everybody has each other’s back.

*EXECUTION: It should go without saying, but top teams make fewer mistakes than everybody else. The media tends to focus on exciting plays that make the highlight reel. What really wins is the stuff that DOESN’T happen. Basketball teams who don’t throw the ball away, or miss key free throws. Football teams who don’t fumble the ball away, or drop a pass on third down. Baseball teams who don’t make a critical error in the field with the game on the line. Don’t be blurred by the hype around highlights. Dig through the data to find out who makes the fewest mistakes.

*MATURITY UNDER FIRE: You hear the word “experienceâ€쳌 used a lot when talking about proven winners. That’s certainly true. But a lot of those guys managed to win the first time because they had maturity under fire. You don’t win that first time because of experience! It will help you continue to win, though. I think the best way to evaluate this from a handicapping perspective is to evaluate how teams and key players perform against top competition. Throw out results against bad teams, and look exclusively at what happens when upper division teams are playing each other. You’ll find this exercise exposes pretenders very quickly, and helps you see the cream rising to the top. It works great in football, even with the smaller schedules. In basketball, you have quite a big sampling to draw conclusions from.

Don’t assume that something’s impossible to find just because you hear hard-to-define words like “intangible,â€쳌 “chemistry,â€쳌 or “aura.â€쳌 The important keys to uncovering championship material can be found in stats and boxscores. It’s just not that hard to rate defenses, count up assists, count up turnovers, and look at performance records against upper division opponents. If Packer and Vitale did that with neutral court games they’d stop raving about Duke so much!

Do the work. You might find that this week’s Final Four and the upcoming NBA playoffs are easier to handicap than you imagined!

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