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Intangibles in Conference Tourneys

   by Hollywood Sports - 03/10/2010


For serious bettors, the ten days of college basketball conference tournament action is the best time of the year. Not only are there many games to consider – but the short turn-from day-to-day in the single elimination tournaments produce outstanding opportunities to find value and seize on those situations. Here are five important intangibles that we always try to keep in mind in evaluating these tournament games.

(1) Home/Road/Neutral Court Split Stats

Many teams play significantly better at home than they do on the road. The vast majority of the teams competing in their conference tournaments are playing on neutral courts. While some of these teams may have a large enough sample size of previous games played on neutral courts to provide credible data, road split stats are revealing. Offensive and defensive field goal percentages, net point differentials, rebounding margins -- these are all insightful data because it helps evaluate how a team will perform in less than their optimal conditions on their home court. If a team plays better on the road, this is solid evidence that they will be able to play well on neutral courts. On the other hand, if there is a substantial drop-off in the statistical categories that a team produces on the road rather then when they play at home, this suggests that this team is unlikely to play up to expectations when they are not in their optimal playing conditions.

Incidentally, it is important to consider how to evaluate teams that are hosting their conference tournament and, thus, playing on their home court. While it may be tempting to conclude that these teams have a distinct advantage -- remember that this does not typically translate into an edge for the bettor. Of course, the lines-makers will take into account the home court advantage of this particular team -- so the home court revelation is not valuable information per se. Good teams that play well on the road still often cover (and win) against the host school. Last year, a solid Nevada team hosted the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in Reno. They had home court advantage against an excellent Utah State squad. While there was a lot of action on the Wolfpack to win the tournament on their home court, we (correctly) concluded that the better team in the Aggies would still prevail in this single-elimination format. Consider home courts -- but be wary of becoming a zombie to the home-court intangible. Often, the real value is taking the superior team when a pointspread that is shaded too far for the home hosts.

(2) From Day-to-Day, Defense is Consistent while Offense is Unpredictable.

Defense is the most predictable aspect of a team's play from game-to-game and, in conference tournament play, from day-to-day. Defense is mostly a component of effort, fundamentals and scheme. In single-elimination play, most teams will provide the effort from game-to-game. Furthermore, when a team possesses strong fundamental defensive tactics, they are successful because they force the opposing team to attempt more difficult shots. While their opponent may still execute, good defenses can still consistently force the offense to make lower-percentage shots. Through hard work and solid fundamentals, defenses can also prevent easy baskets. On the other hand, good shooting is often inconsistent from game-to-game. Emotion, pressure, tired-legs, playing in unfamiliar gyms, playing at unusual times -- these are all things that can weigh heavy on the psyche of a player which will impact their concentration and, thus, the execution of their shot.

Teams that rely on their shooting are scary because they may come out the next day and not be able to hit anything. However, a team that relies on a strong defense from game-to-game is likely to remain competitive in all of their tournament games. And when a team combines good effort, good fundamentals and a distinct scheme that their opponents may be unfamiliar with (like Syracuse's 2-3 zone defense), these teams are often very intriguing propositions. Of course, with Syracuse likely to earn a number one seed this season, we will have to look elsewhere for the hidden value of a good defensive team that plays a unique scheme.

(3) Momentum -- Be Willing to Forget Everything You Thought You Knew About a Team.

This just in: good coaches play to have their team peak in March rather than November. Remember, these are college students who are still learning fundamentals and schemes. Sometimes these teams are dominated by freshman and sophomores -- albeit very talented 18-20 year olds. Good coaches experiment with rotations and styles of play to determine what works best for that group. As a fan of college basketball, what is often exciting is to witness teams experience significant growth spurs just in the matter of days. Conference tournament play affords that opportunity. To this end, we pay particular attention to a team's performance over their last five and their last ten games. And we closely watch for surging teams in their conference tournament. We try to keep an open mind on teams that we thought were not very good. And when we see teams that are collapsing -- while we try to look for extenuating circumstances -- these teams are often ones we fade or just avoid. College players get better both individually and as a team. Some groups grow lethargic. There is often nice value when certain teams experiencing positive or negative runs in momentum.

(4) College Basketball is a Coach's Dominated Event.

Now more than ever, the elite coaches of the game dominate college basketball. With more and more players skipping school to depart for the NBA, the consistently successful programs are the ones with the premier coaches of the land. What makes certain coaches better than others? Getting the most out of their talent. Managing the momentum of the game through substitutions and clock management. The ability to establish effective schemes and counter-scheme their opponents’ game-plans. Experience that offers unique insight into handling situations. Knowing how to motivate a team from day-to-day. Often the relative qualitative difference in the coaching staffs will play a critical role in determining investment value -- especially in games that are played in back-to-back days where there is a limited period of time to fulfill these coaching responsibilities.

<5> (5) Are You Down With PPP?

PPP stands for Points-Per-Possession and it is one of the favored statistical metrics that the basketball stat gurus follow (the basketball equivalent to sabermetrics in baseball). We follow closely the evolution of stat metric study in all three major sports. Some of the practical applications of these practices only benefit fantasy sports in that it helps evaluate individual players. Frankly, some of the metric measurements are garbage. But we have grown fond of Points-Per-Possession. This is a valuable metric because it neutralizes relative differences in tempo and style of play. If a team allows 66 PPG for the year, that could be either a strong or quite mediocre figure based on how fast or slow the team plays on offense. The marginal net difference between two teams in their conference play often provides a more objective measurement regarding who will likely win (and cover) -- especially when the game is played on a neutral court. Hollywood Sports is Down with PPP -- and you can very sure we will have the goods if this metric exposes good value vis-a-vis the line.

Enjoy March Madness! Best of luck for us – Frank.

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