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Handicapping Big Games

   by Scott Spreitzer - 04/01/2009

One of the truisms of handicapping big time games in Las Vegas is that, believe it or not, the pointspread doesn’t matter!

Let’s not go off the deep end here. The pointspread always matters. It’s just that in big games, a half point here or there rarely come into play. If it’s a small spread, the favorite wins by a medium or large amount or loses outright. If it’s a medium spread, you either see an upset over an arrogant favorite or a blowout from the superior side. At spreads near pick-em, whoever wins covers the game.

If you want to pick winners in the Final Four and National Championship games this Saturday and Monday, you’ll need to focus on the TEAMS rather than sweating line value.

Here’s a look at last year’s scores from this weekend:

Memphis (-2.5) beat UCLA 78-63

Kansas (+3.5) beat North Carolina 84-66

Kansas (+2) beat Memphis 75-68

And, the year before:

Ohio State (+1) beat Georgetown 67-60

Florida (-3) beat UCLA 76-66

Florida (-4) beat Ohio State 84-75

Whenever the elite in any sport get together, the Vegas pointspreads are going to be fairly close to even on most occasions! The nature of basketball is that a team that imposes its will on a game will be in position to get a lead and protect it as long as they make free throws. If they can’t make late free throws, well, they’ll lose outright the way Memphis did to Kansas in last year’s championship game.

With this in mind, let’s go over the factors we should be handicapping in this weekend’s games. I’ll start with the obvious ones:

*Who can impose its will on the game? Which team in each matchup has the horses to force their preferred tempo for 40-minutes? If both teams prefer the same type of tempo, which team has the higher upside in that style? This is arguably the most fundamental element of college basketball handicapping these days, and many analysts don’t even consider it. They’re looking at pointspread records, money movement, dog and favorite histories. Focus on the GAME and figure out who’s going to drive the flow.

*Can that team make free throws with a lead? Simple question. By now you have plenty of examples from this season to study as well. Everyone still alive has won a lot of games this year, and is undefeated through the tournament obviously. How have they done from the line in the last few minutes? How did they perform with leads in their conference tournaments? If it’s a veteran team, how did they perform LAST year in the Big Dance in this key area?

*Which team has the superior defense? It’s very hard to come-from-behind if you’re facing a unit that’s tough inside and guards the perimeter well. This isn’t the regular season where you can fall behind an inferior team and bail yourself out with a strong finish. It’s difficult to have a strong finish against a good defense. Look at shooting percentages allowed, two-point shooting percentages allowed, points allowed per game, points allowed per possession, and defensive performances in BIG games for guidance here. You’ll want to back teams with the defensive edge, particularly if you see they’re going to control the game and make their free throws. That’s “game of the yearâ€쳌 material if you can find those three elements all working together in harmony.

*Which team has the superior ballhandling? This area is often overlooked because it’s hard for TV announcers to focus on something that’s “notâ€쳌 happening. When a team isn’t making turnovers, you don’t notice because it seems like they’re running their normal offense. Well, it takes maturity, poise, and talent from your ballhandlers to look normal! Study turnover data from the NCAA tournament and each team’s conference tournament to get a read on guard play. One reason we see so many blowouts in the later rounds of college basketball tournaments is that the trailing team pressures themselves into turnovers and bad shots when trying to rally against a strong defense.

To a degree, all the survivors are strong in these areas already, or they wouldn’t still be playing for the trophy! It’s your job now to differentiate amongst the survivors in these vital departments. It can be done. Frankly, it HAS to be done if you want to get your money in on the right teams.

Best of luck this weekend with the big college games. I’m sure you’re looking forward to the Final Four as much as I am. In coming weeks I’ll be focusing on the NBA playoffs, and the start of the Major League Baseball season. I firmly believe that baseball is easiest to beat in the early weeks when the betting lines are based on last year’s perceptions rather than this year’s reality. I’ve also got some great keys for nailing the “second seasonâ€쳌 of pro hoops. The door may be closing soon on college hoops. It will be opening to other great money making opportunities!

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