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College Basketball Handicapping: Betting on Bubble Teams
by - 2/26/2013

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UNLV's Anthony Marshall

The closer we get to the end of the college basketball season, the more teams there are that are desperate for wins. The goal for almost every team at the start of the season is to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. As February turns into March, teams that aren’t likely to get an automatic bid are pushing as hard as they can to do enough to be an at-large selection. That is a tremendous amount of pressure on a team, and some handle it better than others.

Bettors can find a huge opportunity in these teams down the stretch. By assessing what games the team has left and how well they are likely to deal with the pressure, bettors can uncover some very nice value. Here’s a look at five teams with their backs against the wall and what we might expect from them:

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Akron

The Zips are rolling through the MAC, and they have put together a perfect 12-0 record. In fact, after a slow 4-4 start, they have reeled off 18 straight victories. The problem they face, though, is that the MAC just isn’t that deep. They need to wrap up the conference’s auto bid or they would have a very nervous time on Selection Sunday because their strength of schedule isn’t stellar. Their biggest quality win came against Middle Tennessee State, and they opened the season with a totally inexplicable loss at Coastal Carolina. They need to win out — including a tough trip to Ohio on Wednesday — to keep their hopes alive if they can’t win the conference tournament. Given how much of a roll they have been on lately, though, it’s not hard to imagine them doing so. They are a solid 12-8-1 ATS, so I wouldn’t have any trouble trusting them down the stretch.

Iowa

The hopes of the Hawkeyes took a major blow on Saturday when they lost at Nebraska. That makes it tough, but far from impossible for them. They have four games left — at Indiana, and at home against Purdue, Illinois and Nebraska. A win at Indiana would solve all of their problems in a hurry. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, wins in the other three games — which could certainly happen — would get them to 9-9 in a very tough conference. That plus two wins at the Big Ten tournament would be more than enough to get them in. Of course, this is a team that just lost to a brutal Nebraska team, so as much as I like some of what they do, I have little faith in them the rest of the way.

Kentucky

Watching the Wildcats this year has been fascinating — as long as you aren’t a fan of the team. The talent infusion that has worked so well in past years has led the team down a very rocky road this year — even excluding the Nerlens Noel injury. It has not been smooth, but there is still plenty of hope left for the team. They won their last two, including a big win against Missouri on Saturday. They should win their next three as well, which sets up a huge season ending game against Florida. A win there would be huge but probably isn’t essential. This team has two things going for it — John Calipari is a great coach who finally seems to be figuring out which buttons to push with this odd team, and because of the team’s reputation they are likely to get the benefit of the doubt if they sit on the bubble. I’m not betting against them — especially because the SEC Tournament is very winnable this year.

North Carolina

How strange is it to think that we could face a tournament with neither Kentucky nor North Carolina in it? Bizarre, but certainly possible. They have some good wins — NC State, Florida State, UNLV — but they can look brutal as well, like they did in losing to Texas, and consistency is a foreign word to them. It’s a tough remaining conference schedule — Clemson, Florida State, Maryland and Duke. Given their ability to disappoint, I would tend to doubt them. With an RPI of 20, and with a strength of schedule that is 12th best in the country, though, they have a lot of margin for error. I expect to see them dance, but I am certainly in no hurry to bet on them.

UNLV

The Rebels have challenged themselves with a brutal schedule (11th toughest SOS), and they have hit some road bumps along the way as a result. Freshman Anthony Bennett has been an absolute beast, and he is the engine driving this team forward. There are reasons to question their toughness, though — losses at Air Force and especially Fresno State this month are a long way from acceptable. At this point it would take a monumental collapse to find them outside the Tournament — like losing their last three to conference also-rans. The bigger concern here, though, is that this team won’t put themselves in a position to capitalize on their strengths. This is a team that could be very dangerous in the tournament, but they need to earn a high seed to give themselves the best chance of doing so. That means not just winning out but at least making the final of the Mountain West Tournament. As much as I like this team, at 10-17 ATS this year they have shown that they aren’t quite ready to exceed expectations just yet.

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