College Basketball Betting: The Story Behind One of the Best ATS Teams in the Country
For a vast majority of college basketball teams, their year-to-date against the spread record doesn’t shy more than a few games above or below .500. But each season, a handful emerge as significant money earners and burners. There are generally two types of profiles that consistently reward their backers. The first is what I like to call the “ubers”; high profile teams that are well coached and ultra-balanced with the ability to win with both offense and defense. Good examples include Virginia (18-7 ATS), Michigan State (19-8 ATS), Gonzaga (18-9 ATS), and North Carolina (16-8-2). Those types of teams don’t churn out big profits every season but it’s rare to see them struggle from a point spread perspective for extended stretches. Next are what I refer to as “off the radar” teams. Squads that don’t have pedigree nor a long term track record of ATS success but pop for a big season. These are obviously tricky to find and even though it may be too late — it is late February after all — to really cash in, understanding their path to “riches” can potentially help identify the next team to take the betting world by storm.
The Drake Bulldogs are currently 21-7 SU and 19-5-2 ATS; one of the best “off the radar” point spread teams in the country. And how they got there is pretty remarkable. To start, the program has long been one of the weakest in the Missouri Valley Conference. Back in 2008, Keno Davis showed up, led the Bulldogs to a 28-5, 15-3 record and a berth in the NCAA Tournament and bailed to Providence. Over the next nine years, Drake went through three head coaches, each of which failed to produce a winning record in league play. But last season, they scored with the hiring of Niko Medved who took a veteran squad who didn’t know how to win and led them to 17 victories (17-13-1 ATS) and a berth in the CIT. However, like Davis, Medved immediately left as did four starters and a handful of key contributors. The program then hired Creighton assistant Darian DeVries; a wise move in hindsight but there are plenty of assistants from top programs that take over at a mid-major and don’t succeed in Year 1 (we see you, Charlotte’s Ron Sanchez!). Needless to say, heading into this season, there wasn’t much of anything expected from Drake. In fact, the Bulldogs’ Blue Ribbon overview used terms and phrases like “struggle”, “unproven”, and “much different look.” Considering the respect Blue Ribbon has in the betting markets, Drake didn’t even need to play a game to be viewed as just another mediocre mid-major squad. Adding to it was KenPom who based on the personnel losses and coaching change dropped the Bulldogs from 159th where it ended last season to a preseason rating of 222nd. Again, two publications that HEAVILY influence the market saying a drop off was imminent. And the way the season started, their forecast looked correct. Last year, on a neutral floor, Drake lost to Colorado 86-81. This year, after beating a D3 school in their opener, the Bulldogs traveled to Boulder and got blasted 100-71. The loss bumped Drake’s Ken Pom power rating down 20 spots.
But then a funny thing occurred as Drake started to not only win games but cover point spreads with ease. The Bulldogs would rip off 10 straight ATS wins; half of them by double-digit cover margins. And after back-to-back ATS losses to open MVC play, Drake’s ability to cover the spread continued with a current run of 9-2-2 ATS. It begs the question, how? I get that they had “value” to start the season but the market is generally good at eventually spotting it and forcing oddsmakers to make a correction. One thing that helped “cool” bettors was the loss of starting point guard Nick Norton. Norton, a fifth-year grad transfer from UAB, had been one of the team’s best players before tearing an ACL in the team’s MVC opener. Lose a senior point guard and bettors’ ears perk up. Sure enough, in Drake’s next game vs. Loyola, the Ramblers opened -3, closed -5, and won by 9. Next time out, more of the same. Drake opened -1.5 vs. Southern Illinois but closed +2.5. The Bulldogs though took care of business with a solid 82-70 win. To recap; the loss of an up-and-coming head coach, the loss of four starters, an unexpectedly hot start to season that most — including myself — felt was unsustainable, followed by the loss of your starting point guard. Teams that endure things like that simply don’t go 19-5-2 ATS! It’s important to note however that despite the loss of Norton, Drake has a lot more talent than what was on paper to start the year. One key factor has been Iowa transfer Brady Ellingson who was nothing but a role player for the Hawkeyes. No one could have projected him to rank as the MVC’s most efficient offensive player in league play. Next was JC transfers Tremell and Anthony Murphy. Tremmell was a JC All-American who was heavily recruited by various power conference schools but wanted to play with his brother who was not as highly regarded. Accurately grading transfers in the preseason — especially at mid-majors — is nearly impossible. For every first-year player expected to make a “huge impact” there are three that never see the floor. In the case of Drake, its offseason acquisitions panned out and some. The last factor that has contributed to Drake’s point spread success is the decline of the Missouri Valley. Last season, the MVC ranked 9th out of 32 conferences according to KenPom. This season, 17th! Right place, right time indeed.
When it comes to sports betting, a wise man once said don’t tell me what’s happened but rather what will happen. It’s why I don’t spend much time worrying about ATS and O/U records. They are nice to know and worth keeping an eye on but I’m just as inclined — and sometimes even more so — to bet on a team that is 8-16 ATS vs. a team that has clearly reached its point spread ceiling. In the case of Drake’s ATS success, it’s really been the perfect storm. No recent program pedigree, no preseason hype, first-year head coach, offseason personnel losses, and the mid-season loss of key player. Tell any bettor that profile and it’s “bet against” all the way. But give DeVries credit for not only scoring on a few recruits but coaching them up as well. I don’t know how the rest of the season will look for the Bulldogs. My gut says there will probably be a few opportunities to fade them. But like every college basketball team in the country, their against the spread record tells a story and in the case of Drake’s, it’s been pretty damn remarkable.