College Basketball Betting: The Story Behind One of the Worst ATS Teams in the Country
Yesterday, we told the story of the Drake Bulldogs who currently lay claim to being one of the best point spread covering teams in the country. Today, let’s take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum as the Ohio Bobcats are a money burning 5-19 ATS this season. Like our discussion about Drake, the goal here isn’t necessarily to try to find a betting approach for the remainder of the season but rather to dive into Ohio’s DNA. Understanding exactly why certain teams succeed and fail against the spread can help increase our chances of spotting them before it happens which as we all know is the basis for sports betting.
First thing’s first, what type of basketball program is Ohio? Like a lot of MAC schools, recent Bobcat head coaches have used short successful tenures as a spring board to higher paying gigs. John Groce — who semi-ironically is back in the MAC as the head coach of Akron — led Ohio to 29 wins and a Sweet Sixteen berth back in 2012. He left for Illinois where he failed to produce a season with a winning league record. Former Kent State and TCU coach Jim Christian stepped in and kept things rolling with 24- and 25-win seasons. He then took off for Boston College. Next came current head coach Saul Phillips who enjoyed a successful career at North Dakota State. Phillips went 10-20 his first season in Athens but quickly got the Bobcats back to respectability with back-to-back 20-win seasons. All in all, over the last 10 years, Ohio has consistently been one of the top three or four programs in the MAC.
Last season, the Bobcats took a step back with a 14-17 record. According to Phillips it was rash injuries that caused the decline. “We went into a couple games with seven guys,” Phillips was quoted as saying in this year’s Blue Ribbon Preseason Annual. “Our problems were 100 percent injured related…” This is important because no matter what the sport, a few key injuries can derail an entire season. And bettors love to find those “bad luck” seasons and call for “sunnier days.” Heading into 2018-19, with four returning starters, both Blue Ribbon and KenPom called for improvement. Blue Ribbon said the Bobcats had the ability to challenge newly minted league heavyweight Buffalo. And KenPom bumped OU’s power rating from 193rd to a preseason rank of 132nd. On paper, it looked as if Ohio was poised for a bounce back season.
But before the season even began, Ohio’s injury woes returned. Jordan Dartis, one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters, wasn’t cleared to play after multiple hip surgeries. He has yet to suit up this season. Teams deal with injuries all of the time but for Ohio, who is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the country — something we’ll touch on more shortly — the loss of Dartis was huge. Adding to it was the loss of James Gollon who shot 39% from deep a year ago but played in only seven games this season before injuries forced him to sit.
Despite being without two projected contributors, Ohio went a respectable 8-4 SU in non-conference play but 3-8 ATS. To the betting markets, those ATS struggles probably didn’t raise many red flags. Here’s a team that is winning games but failing to cover numbers over a small sample size. And interestingly enough, some of Ohio’s ATS struggles during the non-conference had a lot to do with the competition. Campbell, USF, Loyola Marymount, Austin Peay, and FIU have all overachieved based on their respective preseason power ratings. In theory, Ohio could have been properly priced it’s just that the competition wasn’t. That theory also holds true with the MAC. Last season, the MAC had three teams finish the season inside Ken Pom’s top 150. This season, 10 of the league’s 12 teams are currently 148th or higher. Now it’s starting to make more sense. Ohio was pegged to finish in the upper-half of the league, but toss in a few key injuries and league-wide improvement and it’s like two ships passing in the night. Ohio was arguably the only team in the MAC that was overrated in the betting markets while a majority of the league was underrated. In hindsight, it was a point spread disaster in waiting.
Statistically is where the case study of Ohio really gets interesting. The loss of Dartis and Gollon was obviously going to hurt the Bobcats’ perimeter shooting but the decline has been unbelievably severe. Ohio shot 37% from 3-point range last season, good for 71st nationally. It was even better in MAC play at 39%. This season, it’s fallen to 29% overall and in MAC play. With the way college basketball has changed over the last 4-5 years, there are increasingly fewer teams that can offset that poor of shooting. And adding insult to injury, Ohio is shooting 61% from the charity stripe and an even more horrific 55% in conference play. But while season-long poor shooting is explainable — Ohio simply doesn’t have good shooters — the most interesting stats come from the defensive side of the ball. With the exception of Buffalo, the MAC is not a particularly gifted offensive conference. Out of 32 leagues, the MAC ranks 23rd in efficiency, 27th in 3-point shooting, and 22nd in free throw shooting. So why then after holding nine of 12 non-conference opponents to less than a point per possession do the Bobcats have such poor defensive numbers in league play? I mentioned Ohio’s woes from deep and the free throw line vs. the MAC. Those two means of scoring have been downright easy for the opposition. Opposing MAC teams are shooting 39% from three and nearly 76% from the line. To put it in perspective, in Ohio’s 13 league games, the Bobcats are averaging nine made free throws per game while opponents are averaging 13.8 despite less than two attempts more per game. I casually scanned through some of Ohio’s box scores and counted at least three MAC games that had there not been such a discrepancy between Ohio’s free throw shooting ineptitude and its opponent’s success the Bobcats would have won and/or covered. Again, teams decide their own fate from the charity stripe but you can’t “guard” the opponent. And while the randomness factor isn’t as strong, there seems to be some in play with how well Ohio’s MAC opponents have shot from deep. Take a look through some of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting defenses and you’ll unsurprisingly see a lot of bad defensive basketball teams. Ohio, however, isn’t that bad. In fact, despite their struggles vs. the MAC, the Bobcats still rank a very respectable 110th nationally in defensive efficiency.
Lastly we get to what appears to be a little “quit” which is common among teams whose seasons haven’t gone according to plan. Ohio has lost six straight games both SU and ATS. During that span they’ve missed the point spread by an average of nearly 13 points per game. And after last week’s 114-67 loss to Buffalo, there are rumblings Phillips’ seat is getting warmer.
Overall, Ohio’s season from a betting perspective has been a fascinating study. The preseason expectations for improvement, the loss of two key cogs, the somewhat unforeseeable improvement of a majority of their schedule, and the trace amounts of randomness and bad luck. Add it all up and it’s a team that has been as bad as it comes at cashing tickets for its backers. Could we have spotted this train wreck beforehand? It would have been tricky. My biggest takeaway is the impact one or two players can have on a team’s outlook and results. It’s impossible to know what Ohio would look like if Dartis and Gollon were healthy. Probably a lot better than 5-19 ATS. But for every team that can’t recover from the loss of a key player or two, plenty are able to plug the holes and survive. Ohio just isn’t one of them.