NCAA Bubble Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 02/05/2007
The NCAA tournament is still several weeks away, but true college basketball fans know that the race to get in is well under way. There are several teams that have already locked up their positions, and even more that only have to keep doing what they have been doing to get their ticket to the Big Dance punched. The loneliest place to be at this time of year, though, is perched on the bubble.
You could get in if everything goes well, but the ultimate reality is that it is probably not completely in your control. For a fan of those teams, being in that position is a nightmare. For bettors it provides a unique challenge. You have to determine how a team is going to react to their position. They could use the adversity to fire them up and play better ball down the stretch, or they could fold under the pressure and become a bad bet. Figuring out which way a team is going to do is the difference between profit and painful loss. Here's a look at four high profile bubble teams to see how they may respond:
LSU - The Tigers came into the season with high hopes after their success last year, but nobody expected that they would miss Tyrus Thomas as much as they have, and everyone expected Glen Davis to improve more than he has. Davis has been good, but he isn't the dominant force that it looked like he could be, and he certainly can't carry a team on his own.
The public hasn't been willing to give up on the Tigers yet, and it has been costly - the team has failed to cover in seven of their last eight games, and they are a dismal 6-14 ATS over the season. The biggest reason for concern is the game they lost badly to Vanderbilt last week. A team that wants to go back to the tournament can't be losing by 11 to Vanderbilt at home when they are favored by eight. That bad loss was sandwiched by a lackluster performance against Arkansas and losses to Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi State.
At 13-9 the Tigers are in a position where they are going to have to fight hard to get in, and they haven't shown that they have a killer instinct in them lately. The loss to Alabama made the postseason a very uphill battle. The Tigers look like a team that could really collapse after they were out of contention, and that time may have arrived already. In other words, I will be taking an extra close look at their opponents down the stretch.
Gonzaga - After several years of completely dominating their conference, the Bulldogs are in an unfamiliar position of panic. They are still at the top of the standings in the WCC, but their position of dominance seems weakened a bit, and they have actually lost a conference game. The Zags are a frustrating team. With wins against power programs like UNC, Texas and, to a degree, Washington on their schedule they shouldn't be in the position they are in. They have lost seven games, though, and some of them, like Nevada, Virginia and especially St. Mary's, are games that they shouldn't be losing.
The next couple of weeks are crucial. They got a very important win at Stanford, and now they host St. Mary's and Santa Clara - two of the teams that could unseat them in the WCC. The team has been pretty poor ATS (10-12-1), due largely to the myth that has been built around them the last few years by the public. That legend is the biggest thing the team has going for them, though - their players honestly believe that playing for Gonzaga is an important and powerful thing.
Barring a major trip-up somewhere soon, I suspect that Gonzaga will find another gear, make up for early losses, and get back to where they feel they deserve to be. If that happens then their tougher play, combined with the lower expectations that their recent struggles have brought on, could mean that the team could provide betting value down the stretch. We may be realizing some of that value already - the team has covered three of their last four.
Stanford - The Cardinal sure did open some eyes with their play the last week or so. A solid win over Oregon State was impressive enough, but following that up with wins over USC and top-ranked UCLA was way more than even the most passionate fan could have hoped for.
The team has very solid RPI and strength of schedule numbers, and those two wins obviously put them into a good position. So good, in fact, that they can probably get away with losing to Gonzaga like they did last week. They could probably even lose to some of the other top teams on the schedule as long as they manage to find some wins elsewhere.
The most surprising thing about the team is that, at 14-6, they are the best team against the spread in their very good conference. Though I have reasonable faith in the team to carry on and make the tournament, I strongly suspect that the two big wins will wake the public up and cause them to overvalue the Cardinal down the stretch. That means that they could very reasonably keep on winning yet become a nightmare for bettors.
Clemson - Has there ever in the entire history of college basketball been a more questionable 18-0 team than Clemson? They reached that number miraculously and, it would now seem, undeservingly - they have since lost five of six, all in conference, and they are reeling.
The ACC isn't having its strongest year, which means that the conference won't get more than its share of tournament bids. To secure a spot, then, Clemson likely needs to go at least 8-8 in the conference. That means that they absolutely have to win their next two - Florida State and Wake Forest - because they have four games down the stretch that certainly don't look like wins the way that they are playing now.
There is a chance that they will turn things around, but this team certainly has the feel of a snowball poised at the top of a ski hill. If they keep rolling down then it could really get ugly. A loss soon and they could spin completely out of control. At 10-11 ATS they haven't exactly been a great team to bet on anyway, which is somewhat telling given that everyone had to see their start as a surprise, but they could turn into a really bad bet if they don't turn it around soon.