College Basketball Totals can be Profitable
by Trevor Whenham - 12/06/2006
When it comes to handicapping college basketball, or most sports for that matter, most people seem to put the majority of their time and effort into deciding who is going to win the game, and which side will cover. That's obviously a sound approach, but when it comes to college hoops you are ignoring an area of huge potential profit. With so many games on the schedule every day, and with so many teams to keep track of, it is very common to find totals for games that are completely out of whack. This is probably most true earlier in the season, but the opportunities to profit from the over/under last throughout the year.
With so many teams out there, the starting point for handicapping college basketball totals is to quickly get a fix on what kind of style a team plays. If a game features a fast, high scoring team playing against a team that likes to slow down the pace then it's not usually possible to determine what will happen with the game. The fast team could control the pace, forcing the slower team to throw out their style and run to keep up. In that case, the game could go over. On the other hand, if the slower team is able to neutralize the advantage of speed and keep the pace slowed, then an under could happen. It's hard to be certain either way. Instead, you are ideally looking for a situation where teams play similar styles and the total seems higher or lower than is likely.
One of the major advantages of college basketball is the amazing number of stats that are available. Two readily available stats that make total play much easier are Tempo and Offensive Efficiency. Tempo measures the number of possessions that a team has per 40 minutes. Offensive Efficiency measures the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions. A third stat, Defensive Efficiency, the points allowed per 100 possessions, can also be useful. By looking both at the number of possessions the teams are likely to have in a game, and their ability to convert those possessions into points, you can get a sense of how the game is going to play out, and on which side of the total the game could play out.
At this point in the college basketball season there are some teams that are emerging as particularly consistent teams when it comes to totals. Here's a look at five:
Eastern Washington - The Eagles are almost a textbook example of a team that is destined to go over. They are a top ten team when it comes to tempo, so they like to run the floor and they don't waste a lot of time. They are just outside of the top ten percent in offensive efficiency, so they can turn their possessions into points. Finally, they are disastrous defensively, falling at 237 in the defensive efficiency rankings. Any team that scores a lot and can't stop their opponents from scoring is going to go over a lot. Theory and reality meet here, since the team is 5-0 on totals this season.
Cal St. Northridge - Another team that likes to run and gun. They are 6-1 on totals this year. An interesting example was when they played Eastern Washington last weekend. Both teams play at a very high tempo. The total reflected that when it was set at 170, much higher than the average game. That hardly mattered. The teams combined for 200 points and had gone over with about seven minutes left on the clock. The one time that the team went under was also telling. They played Illinois St., a team ranked third in defensive efficiency. CSUN had no answer for the smothering defense, and they only managed 44 points.
Duke - This is a case where an incorrect perception can lead to profits. Duke is seen as a high scoring, up-tempo team because that's what they have always been. So far this year, however, they haven't been anything like that. Their tempo is barely in the top 270, while their defensive efficiency is tops in the country. The public love of both Duke and the over means that totals are higher than they should be, and the Blue Devils have gone under in seven of their eight contests. The opportunity to take advantage of this may be passing us by, as the total for their Wednesday game has dropped dramatically since it opened, indicating that people are catching on to what's happening.
Virginia Military Institute - The top team in the country in the tempo rankings by a large margin (they have 91 possessions per 40 minutes, the second ranked team has 82), this is a team that can pile up the points. They are 4-1 in games they have played that have had a total set, and still combined for 172 points in the one game that went under. They've also played five games that haven't had totals set for them, and they have posted ridiculous numbers. They scored 156 points against Virginia Intermont, and they beat Southern Virginia, 144-127. VMI is not a good team, but they sure can score.
Michigan State - If Eastern Washington is a textbook over team, then the Spartans are the prototypical under team. They rank 321st out of 336 teams in the country in tempo, meaning that they slow down any game that they play in. They are also very solid on defense, ranking eighth in defensive efficiency. They don't let their opponents have the ball much, and they don't let them score easily when they do get to try. The Spartans are 1-6 on totals this year.