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Secrets to Early Conference Hoops Handicapping

   by Hollywood Sports - 01/24/2011

Secrets to Early Conference Play CBB Handicapping

The first half of conference action in January college basketball offers some challenging but potentially very fruitful wagering opportunities. College basketball is unique in that the roster turnover college teams experience from year-to-year really impacts college teams that typically have only eight-to-ten players in their regular rotation. Just look to North Carolina who was supposed to be loaded with an extremely talented freshman class last season. Yet the Tar Heels finished only 5-11 in ACC play. If the blue-chippers like what Roy Williams brought in last season can underachieve, then how does one handicap how a team like San Francisco will perform this season after they brought in nine freshman to help replace the three starters they lost to graduation last season? Who expected them to be ahead of Gonzaga in the WCC at this point of the season? This makes handicapping November and December non-conference action challenging given the disproportionate impact roster uncertainty has on a college basketball team (At least the common college football team returns at least half its starters from the previous season). Here are five secrets I have used over the years to help identify betting value relative to the oddsmaker line in the month of January when teams enter the first half of conference play.

(1) Road Teams Due for a Reality Check.

I love home/road split stats in all sports. It is a sign of good things to come for teams that remain consistent despite playing in hostile environments. And I want to play-against teams that play dramatically better only in friendly and comfortable conditions. January college basketball often provides opportunities where some teams are playing in just their first true road games after enjoying a sweetheart non-conference schedules loaded with home dates. These teams often pile up gaudy cumulative stats that are a bit fraudulent given its reliance on a disproportionate amount of home games. These teams, I like to say, are due for a reality check once they finally have to hit the road and play on another team's home court.

(2) Road Weary Teams Returning Home.

Its common for teams to alternate weeks between traveling on the road then enjoying a home stand. Two weeks ago, USC followed a successful start to their Pac-10 season by taking their first road trip of the season by making the trip to Oregon to play the Ducks and the Beavers. The Trojans responded by losing both these games despite being favored in both contests. Is this an indictment of the quality of the USC basketball team this season or is it just reflective of a reality that this young Trojans' team that needs more experience on the road? I concluded it was the latter and took USC last week when they returned home (perhaps now a little undervalued) to lay only 7-points against a young Stanford team on the road. I was rewarded with a decisive 65-42 win and an easy point-spread cover. The lesson that USC (once again) provided is to not overreact to losses on the road -- especially when they occur in whirlwind 48-hour spans which is common with the scheduling in the Pac-10.

(3) Untested Teams with Weak Strength of Schedules

It is folly to look at a team's composite stats from November and December without taking strength-of-schedule into account. Just like not all won-loss records are created equal, neither are net point differentials, scoring averages or field goal percentages. Take North Texas. Just how good are the Mean Green with their 16-4 record? An investigation into their deeper metrics discovers that they are 10th in the nation by nailing 54.3% of their 2-point shots. That's the real deal, right? Well, consider the fact that this record and their underlying stats have been generated on the nation's sixth easiest schedule. North Texas' opponents are averaging just a .300 winning percentage which is 340th out of the 345 Division 1 college basketball teams. And this is not just a product of playing in the Sun Belt Conference as the Mean Green's non-conference opponents average just a .360 winning percentage (304th in the nation). North Texas is a team I still have little trust in at this point of the season -- and I may look to play-against them in unfavorable situations.

(4) Tom Izzo Wannabe's.

Tom Izzo is notorious at Michigan State for scheduling a brutal non-conference schedule that prepares his team for the rigors of playing in hostile environments and the pressure of March Madness. Most fans are very well versed in the fact that Izzo considers the season a journey that prepares his team to peak just in time for the Big Ten Tournament and the Big Dance. The Spartans currently possess the nation's most difficult schedule as their average opponents holds a dominant .827 winning percentage. But do you know which team has already played Ohio State, San Diego State, Duke, Kansas, Cincinnati, Dayton and Xavier? Its Miami (OH) with their 6th ranked non-conference schedule where their non-conference opponents average a scorching .812 winning percentage. Clearly, the Red Hawks' coach Charlie Coles has taken a page out of Izzo's book. Reconsider Miami's 8-11 record when assessing how they will progress in Mid-American Conference play.

(5) Keep an Open Mind: Teams Get Better (or Get Worse).

The corollary of the Izzo-Effect is to recognize that some coaches are more concerned with seeing their team peak in March rather than win impressively in non-conference games. Take out-of-conference games with a grain of salt as sometimes coaches are experimenting with rotations or styles that will be discarded later. Pay close attention to teams that seem to be improving -- especially if this progress began in conference play. Some coaches use all of their non-conference games to finalize their rotations. Sometimes it takes awhile for players to buy-in to a coach's system. Even short term results like Cal-State Northridge's strong defensive performance in their 80-65 upset win over Cal-Poly last week could give pause. Does this effort indicate that the Matadors will begin to improve their defense that is allowing their opponents to score 1.08 Points-Per-Possession in conference play which is dead-last in the Big West? When this result is coupled with reports that players are no longer blasting their coach in the school newspaper and that the coach feels his team is finally on-board with his defensive philosophy, then it may be time to back off from pouncing on their 0-7 record on the road and play against them in their next game away from home. A terrible mistake bettors make is to get locked-in to their judgment of a team. 18-21 year athletes have much room for improvement and it frequently happens in conference play.

The flip side of the what may be happening with Cal-State Northridge is that some teams -- for a variety of reasons -- go into the tank. Will Korie Lucious' dismissal from the team this week crush Michigan State moving forward? As conference play moves on, it is fruitful to identify struggling teams that will not find the will to bounce-back. And as we get a suitable sample-size of conference games against like opponents, we are able to manipulate extremely valuable statistics in forecasting conference outcomes. Look for details on insightful deeper metrics for college basketball analysis in my next article. Best of luck for us -- Frank.

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