College Basketball Handicapping: Understanding the Impact of KenPom
In 2017, ESPN’s go-to gambling beat writer David Purdum wrote a story about the impact Ken Pomeroy has on the college basketball betting markets. It discussed Pomeroy’s background and how oddsmakers all but copy his numbers for the betting public. I wanted to take it a step further and breakdown my own experiences and opinions on “KP” and what it means to me as a veteran college basketball totals bettor.
KenPom.com burst on to the scene before the start of the 2010-11 season. Prior to its arrival, the college basketball totals market was like the wild west. CRIS wasn’t interested in posting openers so Pinnacle would throw up these ultra-soft totals with ultra-low limits that would commonly move 10 points or more. We as bettors were essentially the “talent” as it didn’t take long — nor much risk on Pinnacle’s part — to have the market hammer out a reasonable line. There was also a swatch of time when the market would only offer TV games! You’d have 100+ games on a Saturday and only 25% of them featured a total you could bet.
At the time I wasn’t even using any sort of “advanced metrics” like points per possession or pace. I was young, understood the game well, and would simply bet off of basic stats like field goal percentage and scores against common opponents. Despite being very rudimentary in my approach, betting college basketball totals in 2009 was fairly easy.
When KenPom.com entered the picture in 2010-11, bettors were introduced to the concept of “tempo-free” statistics. Stats like points per possession and effective field goal percentage did a far better job at accurately assessing each team. Oddsmakers eventually figured this out and Pomeroy quickly became a mainstay in the betting community. Sagarin’s Power Ratings were already established and to this day still respected — so much so that oddsmakers will at times “split the difference” meaning if KenPom has -2 and Sagarin -4, the market will offer -3. But from a totals perspective, Ken Pomeroy evolved into a quasi-oddsmaker.
It’s important to note that sportsbooks don’t always copy KP’s numbers verbatim. Whoever puts together CRIS’s openers, at least over the last few seasons, will make adjustments. Let’s say KenPom and CRIS both line a game 140 but the game closes 145 and lands 160. Obviously there are two teams involved but it’s generally easy to identify the team that had the biggest impact on the game sailing over the total. The next time that team plays, KenPom may again show 140 while CRIS, noticing the correct market steam, will post 142. I’ve seen instances where a team goes on a run of overs or unders and oddsmakers will adjust as much as five points in order to combat the market identifying a soft spot in KP’s numbers.
And that brings me to my next point; is KenPom a bettor’s friend or foe? One positive is that bettors have good idea where the lines will open prior to CRIS posting its openers. Say I spot an upcoming matchup that offers potential. Give or take a point or two, I know what number will be offered well in advance and can prepare accordingly. The next benefit to KenPom — once you begrudgingly accept he’s good at what he does and is here to stay — is that there are holes. As far as I know, KP has zero relationship with the betting community. He even said in the aforementioned ESPN article that he doesn’t bet. As a result, he’s not making sweeping changes to his numbers based a game or two. That’s a good thing because we as bettors know that there’s a sizable chunk of teams that DO undergo sweeping changes, especially early in the season. The widow of opportunity to get ahead of KenPom and oddsmakers isn’t as large as it used to be but with 353 teams, it’s still present.
The frustrating thing with KenPom, and this is a more recent development, is the accuracy of his preseason numbers. If a team has the same head coach and returns its core group of players, you won’t see much adjustment. The problem is when teams have a first-year head coach with a resume or an impact transfer that brings with him data from his former school. KP is now accounting for those changes more and more. Here’s a good example: Under Mark Fox, Georgia played only five games last season with more than 70 possessions. With Tom Crean now in charge, and given his track record of preferring an up-tempo pace, KP has Georgia’s adjusted tempo set at 73.2. Every one of Georgia’s games is currently projected to have 71 or more possessions. Everyone knows the Bulldogs are going to play faster this season but rather than bettors getting a crack at playing a few overs to start the season, thanks to KP, it will be built into the line.
In the end, a large part of handicapping college basketball totals is simply trying to beat Ken Pomeroy. It used to frustrate me to no end and that in turn impacted my betting in a negative way. Nowadays, I’m at peace with it and still feel confident that over the long term I’m going to win. We’ve seen the impact of analytical data in all sports. In the NBA for example, a sharp bettor could make a living betting games based on accurately assessing each player’s value to the point spread and total if said player was injured or given the night off. Nowadays, that information is readily available. At its core, sports betting is a game of cat and mouse. Oddsmakers put up lines and bettors bet games they feel offer value. Rinse and repeat, 365 days a year. Is it harder to win than it was 10 years ago? Yes, it is. But I know plenty of bettors, including myself, that have kept pace with the constant evolution of the markets. Take away one weapon and a winning sports bettor will quickly discover and new one. Those who don’t, simply won’t survive.
Andrew Lange has a tremendous long term track record with his college basketball totals. Over the last 10 seasons, he’s posted a documented record of 443-322 58%. You can check out all of his subscription options for the 2018-19 season here.