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College Basketball: The Follies of Youth

   by Scott Spreitzer - 01/31/2006

When we examine stats, it doesn't tell us WHO those players really are. Are they competitive or laid back? Do they have the passion to win, or lazy work habits? Do they want the ball at crunch time, or someone else to take the last shot? Do they have heart, or are they just going through the motions? You can't tell by stats, can you? Understanding pieces of the individual players, and even the coaches, can help better gauge the true merits of a team.

Take age. Age is an important factor when it comes to college basketball. When March tournament play sets in, you often hear people talk about senior leadership. A team loaded with seniors and juniors has an excess of important subtle characteristics that a team with, for example, two sophomores, two freshmen and one junior in its starting five. Experience is one of those qualities. A senior laden team has been through the ups and downs of many big games over the years, and they know the pressure of contests that come down to the last minute of play because they've been there before. Probably many times before.

In addition, understanding game situations simply takes practice and experience.

Contrast this with a team of freshman and sophomores, especially when tournament play begins. Take a look at Texas Tech this season. Bobby Knight has seven freshmen in his largest recruiting class. The Red Raiders are currently led by junior guard Jarrius Jackson and sophomore Martin Zeno. Right away you can tell the best players on the team are underclassmen. Notice that Knight has a young team that has been up and down and a major money-burner at 6-13 against the spread. This is a team that was thought of too highly by oddsmakers before the season started, and too much youth is one reason for their near .500 record and horrible spread mark.

Another way that the difference between youth and senior leadership can reveal itself is in road play. Texas Tech is 1-5 SU/ATS this season on the road. Young teams often learn to play well FIRST in their home gym, but usually play worse on the road. It's only when the experience factor begins to kick in, building confidence, that a veteran team begins to show improvement on the road.

Louisville, too, has been a money-burner, at 4-12 against the spread. Talk about being overvalued! A public team like Louisville was a favorite at Rutgers Saturday and lost 65-56. Notice what Cardinal Coach Rick Pitino said after the loss: "This is a team that's very young, and I knew from day one this year we were going to struggle. We struggled with Bellarmine College and Southern Indiana, two Division II teams, in exhibitions. We're not playing particularly well, we're all young, we're all new, this doesn't come as a surprise to me at all.â€쳌

He's being candid. Louisville is not a bad team, it's just that youth is one component that you can't overcome with just a couple of practices. It takes time and experience to change that weakness. Louisville is 4-9 ATS as a favorite and 0-3 SU/ATS as a dog this season.

Staying with that game, notice that Rutgers Coach Gary Waters said, "The kids played with enthusiasm and intensity. Today, I thought we grew up. We kept our composure at the end." That's a component of experience, the growing pains that teams have to go through to take that next step. And believe me, it can reveal itself not only on the court, but often against the number.

If you follow college basketball, think back five years ago to Michigan State. That Spartan team was a preseason favorite to go all the way, not only because it was talented but because five senior starters returned, led by Mateen Cleaves, something that is unusual. And they did go all the way, winning the NCAA title. Experience was a key factor that helped them advance in each round, just as too much youth can sometimes be a liability. Keep that in mind as tournament play approaches.

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