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Rock, Paper, Scissors

   by Scott Spreitzer - 02/17/2009

I was watching UCLA lose to Arizona State for the second time this season the other night, and I got to thinking how much college basketball is like that game "Rock, Paper, Scissors."



Nothing wins all the time. Everything is capable of winning.



I think many handicappers and the general public spend too much time trying to "rank" teams on a scale from good to bad, and not enough realizing which team characteristics match up well or poorly against others.



UCLA has a great team. They don't match up very well with Arizona State. It's as if UCLA is a rock that can smash lesser teams, but they get wrapped up very efficiently by the paper that Arizona State represents.



*Arizona State is patient on offense, while UCLA tends to relax too often in the paint defensively and allow easy shots.



*Arizona State is disciplined on defense in a way that takes away UCLA's offensive weaponry.



I've watched 85 minutes of action between these teams now (the first game went overtime). Arizona won on the scoreboard 135-125. There's just no evidence head to head that UCLA is the clearly superior team. Both are top notch squads. Arizona State's won scoreboard.



Yet…



*Most computer or poll ranking systems have UCLA rated higher.



*Arizona State lost by double digits to a Cal team that couldn't stay with UCLA.



*Arizona State lost at Southern Cal, where UCLA was able to win.



*Arizona State lost a pair of HOME games to the Washington schools over the same weekend. A team like UCLA is very unlikely to get swept at home over a weekend in league play.



Rock, paper, scissors.



If you're only paying attention to scoreboard results, it's easy to feel like you're chasing your tail! A team playing well suddenly loses (think of all the highly ranked teams in the polls who have fallen on hard times recently). A team coming off a bad week suddenly explodes (think about Texas vs. Oklahoma State earlier this week).



Imagine "Rock" has a three-game homestand against "Scissors," and looks dominant. Suddenly, the next time out, they're stunned by "Paper!" The TV pundits can't believe it! Dick Vitale just told you that "Rock" is the strongest team he's ever seen. What happened? It was a good matchup for "Paper." They actually had the edge, regardless of all the TV hype about "Rock"s recent hot streak.



Then the next weekend, "Paper" falls to "Scissors," and the surprised TV announcers are saying "anything can happen in this sport."



If you focus on personnel matchups, the number of "surprises" goes way down. If you don't, college basketball can seem like bedlam. Know who the rocks are…who the scissors are…and know which tweeners play like paper.



Here are some ideas for you:



*Remember that teams with poor ballhandling guards can get away with that vs. soft defenses if they shoot well, but get killed by turnovers vs. good defenses. Their results depend on their opponents more than anything they're doing.



*Remember that teams that play strong inside defense see that strength trumped when they face a good perimeter shooting team. They look big and strong, but spend the game taking the ball out of the bottom of the net after a swish. Against teams who can't shoot the trey well, they're DOMINANT though. Again, their success is tied to their opponent rather than themselves.



*Remember that teams who draw a lot of free throw attempts at home will often see that disappear on the road or at neutral sites. Officials can be swayed by home crowds or conference affiliations. The pointspread results of those offenses will be greatly swayed by how the game is called.



*Remember what you learned from the Arizona State/UCLA series. Patient offenses that try to work for a good shot will GET that good shot against teams that lack the discipline to hang tough for the full shot clock. But, they will have to force up bad shots with time running out against defenses who can maintain their discipline for the full possession.



In all of these cases, we're talking about EXTREMES in results. Final scores can skew off 10-15 points away from expectations because of the nature of the game. Vegas oddsmakers just can't capture this reality in their numbers. I'd argue that REAL handicapping involves understanding the true nature of college basketball, then punishing the betting markets because of what they fail to capture.



I hope this discussion will help you see college basketball in a whole new light. Some longtime gamblers have given up on the sport because the teams seem so inconsistent. I think the teams are VERY consistent if you know what to look for and how to take advantage!



A game of "rock, paper, scissors" can seem very random to you if you're playing with friends. But, if there were guys who ALWAYS chose rock, ALWAYS chose paper, and ALWAYS chose scissors, it would become very predictable.



College basketball can become this predictable if you just do the work it takes to understand the nature of each team!

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