Getting Ready for the Grind That is College Basketball
“Nothing will work unless you do.”
There’s no sport that requires more handicapping effort than college basketball. There’s also no close second. There are 353 Division I basketball teams and 260 of them are lined for each and every game they play. It equates to over 4,000 bettable games throughout the season and over 25,000 wagering opportunities when you consider all bet types (sides and totals for the full game as well as the first half and the second half). What makes things even more frenzied is the fact that college basketball has the shortest season in terms of length than any other sport. The action starts in early November and is basically wrapped up by the end of March for a total of just four and a half months. Heavy turnover via graduations, freshmen, redshirts and the transfers market adds to the complexity. In other words, handicapping college hoops isn’t going to be easy. But keep in mind that it isn’t easy for the linesmakers to stay on top of the action either. With over 25,000 wagers available in a condensed amount of time, you can bet that there are going to be plenty of mistake lines. That’s why college basketball offers some of the biggest advantages you’ll find in sports betting. Having a well-developed plan of attack is essential, however.
If you handicap college basketball at a serious level, the work you do in preparing for the season often exceeds the work you put in during it (Note: this may not pertain to strict modelers or other bettors who don’t rely on reading and researching as part of their handicapping process). Many successful college basketball handicappers start their preseason work three or four months prior to the regular season. That may sound crazy to some, but with 353 teams to cover across 32 conferences, it’s completely warranted. Just like the players on the court, you need to prepare to win.
There are many successful college hoops handicappers that focus on only a handful of conferences rather than try to cover them all and fail. You need to strike a balance between covering conferences that you will enjoy following and ones that will pay off the most. The bigger the conference, the harder it’s going to be to consistently find edges. Focusing on the small low majors will get you the best returns on your money. If you’re planning on handicapping at least two other sports that overlap with college hoops, I’d recommend narrowing your focus down to between three and six conferences at most. That results in a range of 30-70 teams to cover depending on which conferences you select.
The first step in researching college hoops teams is to figure out which sources you are going to rely on for information. In today’s age, there are more sources than there is time in the day to read all of them. As a result, it’s important to narrow it down to only the most useful ones. For college basketball, the number one source for information on each team is the annual Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. It’s the bible of preseason college hoops information and analysis. Blue Ribbon has been around for 38 years and covers all 353 Division I schools in depth. For each team, there’s information on the head coach and every single player on the roster. Blue Ribbon checks in at 400+ pages annually.
The preseason college hoops magazines are also valuable because they tend to be more opinionated. Athlon, Street & Smith’s and Lindy’s are the main players in the preseason magazine space and I’ve used all three in the past to get a feel for how others are viewing each team. They give you a good handle on the public perception and that’s important when it comes to betting. The biggest knock on Blue Ribbon and the preseason magazines is that they sometimes contain stale information since they typically go to the printers in September. Team blogs and message boards are helpful for updates on news that has occurred after the annuals have been printed. Previews on websites like ESPN.com and Foxsports.com can also be relied upon, but generally aren’t very thorough in their analysis – especially in terms of the smaller schools. Good luck finding information on Texas Rio Grande Valley on ESPN.
Set up an Excel spreadsheet, notebook or some other device to record all of your team notes you accumulate throughout the research process. The more information you gather and record, the more confident you’ll be in effectively rating each team. You will be referring back to these notes often throughout the season, so it’s important to make them as detailed as possible. Most of your notes will center on coaches, personnel, strengths and weaknesses and any questions that still need to be answered.
The research process for each team begins with reviewing what happened last season. Some of this is covered in the preseason annuals, but it’s important to pull up the prior year numbers from KenPom.com as well. Look over the game-by-game results, the seasonal statistics and the strengths and weaknesses. How did the season play out? Figure out how lucky or unlucky the team may have been in terms of injuries, close games and the numbers. This is important because these teams tend to regress to the mean after a lucky or unlucky season.
Once you have reviewed the prior season, you have to get a handle on how this year’s team is going to be different. Personnel changes are rampant in college hoops and it’s the main area of focus in the research process. The number of players returning from last season’s roster is usually more important than who is joining the team. That’s because continuity is a huge factor in building a winning team. With so many players coming and going, it’s the teams that stick together for multiple years that usually have a leg up on the competition. Of course, there are exceptions like Kentucky and Duke who can reload with multiple five-star athletes on an annual basis. But for the majority of the nation, maintaining continuity has a strong positive effect on performance. It’s not just how many are coming back, but who is coming back. The guys that made the biggest contributions in the prior season are obviously more important than the guys that produced little off the bench. Focus on the player efficiency statistics like offensive and defensive ratings when analyzing the returning players. Many handicappers get caught up on how many points, rebounds and assists a player produced when evaluating production. Some guys are able to compile statistics because they’re on the floor a lot or have a high usage rate, but that doesn’t automatically mean that they helped the team. Thus, efficiency ratings and other rate statistics for rebounding, assists and turnovers are more telling than traditional counting statistics. KenPom displays player statistics in terms of rates and also shows national rankings for context.
Efficiency ratings may also be helpful in evaluating bench players that didn’t get a ton of minutes and could play a bigger role in the future. For players that didn’t get much playing time, one of the best predictors of success is their recruiting rank in their class. If a 2-star sophomore and 3-star sophomore are coming off of identical freshmen seasons in which they played limited minutes, it’s the 3-star player that will likely make the bigger leap in year two when his minutes increase. It’s only after a player has a reasonable sample of minutes played that the recruiting ratings are no longer relevant. One of the most important axioms in evaluating returning players is that the biggest leap in production comes in a player’s sophomore season. Freshmen take time to learn the game and develop, so their first year is often a mixed bag and uneven. Sophomores come in more relaxed in their second season and are often stronger. They understand the coach’s system better and how they fit into it. The next biggest leap in production is in going from a sophomore to a junior. Players get more playing time and have refined their skills at that point. The smallest incremental increase in production comes in going from the junior season to the senior season. Playing time may increase, but the data shows that improvement is usually limited. As a result, a team that returns all five senior starters often doesn’t improve all that much from the prior season (assuming no impactful newcomers). You will see much more improvement in a team that brings back five starters that are composed of sophomore and juniors.
Bringing back your starting point guard is also extremely beneficial, especially if he’s been in that role for multiple seasons. Experienced point guards make the entire offense run smoother and they are typically one of the team leaders. Breaking in a new point guard can stunt the growth of the other players on the court and often leads to inconsistent production as a unit. If an experienced backup is taking over the starting spot, the transition is usually easier on the team. But if the starting point guard comes in as a freshmen or transfer, the learning curve is steep and there are usually a lot of bumps along the way. Those bumps can be especially hard early on in the season.
The evaluation tools are the same for players that leave due via graduation or the transfer route. Efficiency ratings and rate statistics will answer the question of how important a player was to a team. Losing your best player will obviously set many teams back, especially if they move onto a pro career. It’s one thing if a guy graduates and ends his basketball career. But if that player ends up signing a pro contract, in the NBA or Europe, that loss is typically much harder to overcome historically. The exception, once again, is the powerhouse teams like Kentucky or Duke that can reload in the very next season. But when a mid-major school loses an all-league performer to the NBA, the team can look dramatically different in the following season. Players that go onto pro careers usually make everyone around them better. Losing multiple key players in a season is difficult to overcome as well. There are many college basketball teams that lose three or four starters in a season, and in some cases all five. Those teams are going to be far more unpredictable going forward because you don’t know how the players taking over will work together. In those instances, you will be spending a lot of time studying who is coming in to replace that lost production.
It used to be that the only new faces on a college basketball team were the freshmen, and they typically didn’t play very much. Times have changed dramatically. Freshmen make much bigger impacts than ever before and they’re not the only newcomers. Transfers have increased exponentially over the last couple of decades. There are now 700+ Division I players that transfer from one school to another annually. The JUCO ranks also provide an additional avenue for head coaches to tap into. We have more change from year-to-year in college hoops than ever, but that’s a terrific thing for handicappers.
Evaluating freshmen has gotten easier over the years with all of the recruiting information now available on the internet. Every freshman is rated and ranked by several different scouting services. You may also find scouting reports that identify strengths and weaknesses, along with complete high school statistics. It’s best to let the experts tell you how talented a recruit is than to try and play scout yourself. There’s only so much time to handicap, so let the ratings and rankings themselves be your guide. Freshmen are more impactful than ever, but the vast majority of them still struggle to make a meaningful contribution in year one. The top 50 freshmen usually make some kind of impact, especially the guys in the top 10 who are often one of the teams’ best players. But freshmen ranked 51-100 become an efficient starter (offensive rating of 110 or higher and 50% of minutes played) only 13% of the time in their first season. Three-star freshmen outside of the top 100 become an efficient starter only 11% of the time while two-star freshmen check it at only 2%. Recruiting class ranks give a better indication of the depth of the class, which is important for teams that have lost some key players. Keep in mind that recruiting classes are generally highly-touted and too much emphasis is often placed on them. You typically do better fading teams with excellent recruiting classes than jumping on board with the public – especially early on in the season.
Transfers are a completely different animal than freshmen. They usually come into a program with some prior experience (although not always at the Division I level). Transfers have been through some battles and have already went through that difficult adaptation period experienced during the freshman season. Many transfers make the decision to leave their school because something has gone wrong. Maybe they failed to maintain the academic standards at their school, didn’t click with the head coach or ran into some legal or personal issues that pushed them out.
There are two types of transfers that head coaches can go after. The first group is the graduate transfers that can immediately play at their new school upon arrival. They come to fill a specific role and know what kind of playing time they are going to get in their final year of eligibility. The second is the more standard transfer, who must sit out a year before playing in games for their new school. They can, however, practice with the team during the season they sit out. Graduate transfers are more impactful overall because they have more experience and head coaches typically know what they are getting before they arrive. Traditional transfers can be more of a wild card and have a much lower success rate overall.
Projecting the contributions of transfers is more of an art than a science. Efficiency ratings aren’t as relevant because the situation is different at every school. Opportunity plays a big part. In general, players that leave a Power 5 conference and transfer down to a mid-major or low-major make a bigger impact. The lower a player transfers down in terms of conference strength, the larger the contribution. A former 4-star recruit leaving an ACC team as a sophomore could become a star if he transfers to a team in the Sun Belt conference. On the flip side, players that leave smaller schools and transfer up to a Power 5 school will likely see a reduction in minutes. However, those players typically see an increase in efficiency given the more skilled players around him. Pay close attention to the situation a player is leaving and what he is coming into. For players transferring down, take note of their recruiting ratings to project what an increase in playing time could mean. The biggest transfer impacts almost always come at the smaller schools. Remember too, that transfers will outperform most freshmen because they are readier.
After reviewing the prior season and evaluating all of the returning players and personnel changes, it’s time to figure out how the current year’s team stacks up with last year’s edition. I like to start with my final offensive and defensive team ratings from the prior year, then adjust them upward or downward based on the composition of the current year’s roster. These adjusted ratings represent my preseason ratings for a team. My ratings are set up to be compared directly to KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency numbers. This step allows me to do a sanity check on my numbers in case I have something out of whack after reviewing KenPom’s preseason ratings. I’ll investigate the large differences and try to reconcile why our ratings are so far apart. Often, it’s something that I think KenPom may have missed, and other times I adjust my ratings a little bit towards KenPom to be conservative.
After researching teams before the season for years, I have a very good handle on how many points to adjust a team’s offense and defense over last year’s rating. It takes time to learn but remember that it doesn’t have to be an exact science. Estimates can suffice after some practice. If you get the adjustments correct directionally, you’ll likely end up on the right sides of most games. Keep in mind that the offensive and defensive efficiency ratings correspond to the points scored/allowed per 100 possessions. To calculate their overall effect on scoring, you have to divide by the number of possessions.
Some handicappers don’t assign precise team ratings during their preseason work. Instead, they simply mark them as a team to “bet on” or “fade” based on their research. That can be a dangerous approach because you don’t know if your opinion after researching a team is already in the betting line. However, I do know of some handicappers that tackle college hoops in this manner and win. You have to be really in tune with how linesmakers and the betting market value teams and what types of information they often overlook. The same process can be utilized in labeling teams as “over” or “under” for betting totals. I’m a much bigger believer in this alternative approach with totals, as it’s very difficult to pinpoint how a team’s pace will fluctuate from season to season. You might expect a team’s tempo to increase based upon certain reliable factors, but it’s tough to estimate by exactly how much it will increase. Getting the direction right is often good enough to gain an edge.
Make sure your team notes address any questions you want answers to during the season. For example, take a team that is starting a JUCO point guard and you’re not sure how he’s going to handle the pressure of Division I. If he’s as good as advertised, he can take this team to another level. But if he struggles, there is no one else to plug in and it could derail the team’s season. Add this question to your notes and evaluate how the JUCO point guard is performing in his first few games. If he’s putting up good numbers and holding his own, you’ve got your answer and can upgrade your rating.
Exhibition games are often disregarded by most college hoops handicappers and that’s a big mistake. There is often information to be gleaned from these games if you take the time to look at the box scores. Most college hoops teams play two exhibition games, although some will play a scrimmage instead of one of the games. Since most exhibitions are against Division II or lower opponents, losses or close games require some investigating. Find out what exactly happened. Sometimes the regular starters play very few minutes or there are several rotation guys sitting out completely. It may be that the other team was red hot from three-point land. Look at the box score and read the game recap to get more clarity. If it turns out that there are no excuses for the poor performance, it’s a significant finding. Teams that lose an exhibition game to an inferior opponent are usually experiencing some big underlying issues.
Take a look at the team’s newcomers – the freshmen, transfers and redshirts. How did they play during exhibition action? You are looking for are guys that really stand out. Maybe there’s a newcomer that is taking a lot more shots than expected and he’s converting them at a high rate. Since new point guards are really important, take a look at their assist-to-turnover ratio. Remember that this is all free information that very few people are utilizing.
Information from foreign trips can also be useful from a handicapping perspective. Yet, like exhibition games, they receive very little attention from bettors. College basketball teams are permitted to take a foreign trip once every four years. They can be in the form of a short three-day visit to Canada or as long as a two-week excursion to Eastern Europe, and anywhere in between. Teams will typically play three or four games during the foreign tour, taking on club teams or international all-stars in an exhibition. Head coaches usually get everyone some playing time and there’s a fair amount of mixing and matching to see what works and what doesn’t. It’s great from a learning perspective for both the players and the coaches. If you read the recaps from foreign trips, you will commonly see players remarking how they bonded with their teammates on a new level and experienced some camaraderie on and off the court. That camaraderie is valuable early on in the regular season.
November 6th is the beginning of the college basketball season, but that’s not when the true grind begins for dedicated bettors of the sport. I’ve already put in hundreds of hours getting ready for the upcoming season and haven’t made a single dime yet. But I know the money will come because I’ve laid a strong foundation for the season with my preseason work. As John Wooden said, “Nothing will work unless you do.”
Eric Waz has made a significant percentage of his income from betting on college basketball since moving to Las Vegas to become a professional sports bettor in 2010. You can partner with Waz this college hoops season by purchasing a subscription to receive all of his selections for the 2018-19 campaign. Click here to find out more details.