Handicapping College Basketball in the Dog Days of February
The foolish few who chose this life — the life of a bettor — know the feeling. Like steady rainfall on a dreary day, the slow accumulation of wear and tear begins to take its toll on a bettor’s conscience. Long gone is the bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed giddiness that comes with the season’s commencement in November. Up ahead lies the pot of gold at the end of the college basketball rainbow, March Madness, the majestic last stretch of the marathon. In between lies our current check point, February, an empty desert smack dab in the middle of no man’s land.
By now, the tides of handicapping challenges have reached their highest levels. The market is already air tight but it continues to sharpen day by day. As a bettor, your competition is twofold: the oddsmakers and your fellow bettors. The former has been wisened by the cumulative effect of the season, as indicated in the shrinking disparity between the opening line and the closing line. This is 101-level stuff for most professionals but the chart below helps contextualize the hardening of the market.
Based on the 7-day moving average, we observe that the average line movement has dropped almost a half point from the first week of the season to the last week in January.
For true handicappers who make their own numbers, this is when it gets hairy. It’s rare you’ll find an opening line 3-4 points off from your number, situations which were littered up and down the board back in November – ah yes, the good times.
But, as the legendary Alan Boston so keenly stated in response to an article I wrote last year, YOU, the handicapper, are also sharper:
“The line maker is producing a better product, however, the handicapper is too. You do not need as big a margin in February as you do in November to make a big bet. A game you make 4 in February that is lined at 2 is close to a big bet. A game that you have 4 in November, that is lined at 2, is marginal at best.”
Not losing sight of that dynamic is critical, particularly for those who originate their own numbers.
For others who wager from more of a qualitative or ‘feel’ lens, February is where you can shine. The relative edge of numbers-based (e.g., power ratings) handicappers over your own intuition is minimal. The see-saw effect here is that the value of both situational and matchup-based opinions are elevated. Here are three key angles worth targeting during this tricky, and often treacherous, stage in the college hoops season.
Traditional / Cliche ‘Spots’
While there’s no bulletproof data analysis that proves the significance of ‘letdown’ spots or ‘revenge’ spots, I stubbornly believe they hold merit at this point of the season. The human nature phenomenon is amplified in college basketball, a game played by 18-22 year old ‘amateurs’ (unfortunately, amateur in both mental maturation and compensation). As simple and obvious as it sounds, backing teams off a big loss or multiple losses seem to hold value, particularly if accompanied by a multi-day break in the schedule. The inverse of this situation also plays well – that is, fading teams off a big win or multiple big wins. The rationale is as follows: barring a few annual exceptions, it’s rare for teams to categorically improve or get worse at this point in the season. There’s a critical difference between a team improving and a team simply getting hot, the latter of which is far more likely to be followed by a reversion to the mean, the same mean that’s been established over the first two to three months of the season.
Bettors who narrow their focus to a specific league thrive in this regard. Put simply, certain teams and coaches are matchup kryptonites for other conference foes, and these edges often sustain over multiple years. One notable example is Virginia against Clemson. Death, taxes and Tony Bennett’s pack line ruining Clemson’s offense are near certainties. This is a prime example of two teams with distinct identities that hold firm year over year, and the lopsided results in favor of Virginia are likely to hold as well.
Conference Standings and Conference Tournament Implications
As we approach the finish line, it’s imperative to understand the specific nuances of each conference tournament. A team with a multiple game lead in the conference standings is less likely to go all-in late in the year, particularly if their title belt is already secured. However, the looming death of some conference tournaments has thrown a wrench in this traditional handicapping angle this season. The heavy hitters in each mid and low major conference are aware of the potential elimination of conference tournaments all together, placing an extreme premium on winning the regular season outright. We’ve seen the chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ expand in many non Power 6 leagues. Not only are cream of the crop extra locked in to keep their foot on the gas but the dregs of these conferences feel an added sense of hopelessness and despair. The result? A stronger edge for large favorites and a diminished edge for large dogs, relative to years past.
Follow BettorIQ contributor Matt Cox @matty_cox.