College Basketball Rivalries
by Trevor Whenham - 02/06/2007
If I had to pick one reason why I love college sports so much I would have to say that it is the rivalries. There is nothing more exciting than a Michigan/Ohio State game, or a Copper Bowl, or UNC vs. Duke or Louisville vs. Kentucky on the hardcourt. The passion, the tradition and the bitter hatred make the games so much more interesting to watch than your typical Tuesday night NBA game or mid-July baseball game. Even if you don't know anything about the teams or the players you can still easily get wrapped in the game and find yourself cheering for one team and loathing the other.
The rivalries may make the games fun to watch, but they can make them harder than they may otherwise be to handicap. In order to properly pick the team you will bet on you have to not only determine how the two teams match up, you also have to figure out what impact the rivalry will have on the game. It's not always easy, and sometimes you'll get completely surprised, but if you are careful in considering the games you can, at the very least, avoid making costly mistakes. Here are five things to keep in mind when you are handicapping rivalry games:
1. Consider the coach's ego. A team is going to get as excited about a game as a coach decides they will be. To handicap a game, then, you need to consider which one of the coaches has more riding on the game. If a coach needs the win to save a job or cement a reputation then he can often get his team to achieve more than it may otherwise. Take the NC State vs. North Carolina game this past weekend. Coach Sidney Lowe is new to NC State as a coach, but he is very familiar with the rivalry from his time as a player for the Wolfpack. He's in his first year, he takes over a team that is mired in mediocrity and he needs a boost for his program to attract better recruits. NC State has had a tough schedule this year, and haven't fared particularly well against ranked teams. In other words, Lowe and his ego needed this game badly. Roy Williams, on the other hand, would get absolutely no boost to his career or program from a victory. With all that in mind, you may have been able to spot some value in the Wolfpack at home.
2. All hatred is not created equal. It is not at all uncommon that a game will be a very significant and important rivalry for one team while barely registering for another. Back to the NC State game again - the two teams have met 209 times in their histories, and UNC has won 134 of them, including 22 of the last 30 and the last six in a row. UNC has been at the top of the basketball pecking order, with one notable recent exception, for years, while NC State has struggled to live up to past glory. For NC State, then, knocking off UNC would be a big coup, while UNC would likely be looking beyond this match-up to bigger opponents and brighter lights. There are lots of examples of games where one team will be fired up and will be at their best while the other team will be treating the match-up like just another game, or even look past the opponent. Think of a regional school against an in-state powerhouse, for example, like when Western Michigan or Central Michigan plays Michigan or Michigan State. Underdogs could be fired up and could cover when they might not otherwise.
3. There can be only so many rivalries. It can be easy for the media or fans to look at pretty much every game on the schedule as a rivalry game. Non-conference games can be against top-ranked teams or against teams that tangled in the tournament in recent years, while conference games create rivalries because the teams are close together and play each other a couple of times every year. A team only has so much capacity to build up the enthusiasm and emotion that makes a rivalry such a powerful force. They certainly can't work themselves into a frenzy every game or every week. Before you handicap a game as a rivalry game and decide that there will be an impact, then, you first need to convince yourself that the game will actually be viewed as an important rivalry game by the players and not just the press.
4. Look at the players' passports. Increasingly, thanks to growing recruiting pressure, players are playing for teams that are located far away from where they grew up. Rivalries that are based on tradition and location won't necessarily have a strong and motivating impact on players who are completely unfamiliar with that tradition or that area. You need to look at the roster, and at the scope of the rivalry before you assume what the impact will be. A player is going to get fired up for the Civil War even if the grew up a million miles from Oregon because it is a serious and hate-soaked rivalry. It might be harder for a player to get fired up for a more obscure or less passionate rivalry, though, even if the people that grew up in the communities of the schools think that they should.
5. Check the TV listings. A rivalry game can boost a team's play. A nationally, or even regionally, broadcast game can boost a team's play. A nationally televised rivalry game, then, could have an even bigger impact on team's play. This could be especially true for a team that is not used to playing on the big stage. Going back to the Wolfpack, being on TV would be much more of a novelty for them than it would be for UNC. That could have an impact that needs to be considered.