College Basketball Scoring Threats and ATS Profitability
by Trevor Whenham - 03/05/2008
Back in January I took a look at how the number of scorers an NBA team had affected the ATS success of that team. There were some interesting conclusions to be drawn, but it all boiled down to the same basic conclusions - an NBA team was better off ATS when it had a more balanced scoring threat. Given that conclusion, it only seems logical to now look at college basketball to see what trends emerge.
Since nothing about college basketball handicapping can be simple, I'll say up front that the first reality that emerged was that the conclusions that were true for the NBA handicapping don't seem to hold in college basketball. To do the study, I used the same rationale as I did before - I looked at the number of scorers a team had that had a point total within 25 percent of the scoring leader on the team. In other words, if you could take a player's scoring total, add 25 percent of the total to it, and get a total higher than that of the leading scorer then he qualified as a main scoring threat.
I started by looking at the AP Top 25. What was at first interesting was the wide variety of ways that teams score points. No NBA team had more than three main scoring threats. Three different Top 25 teams - Louisville, Marquette and Kansas - have four, and Xavier has an almost unbelievable six. Though the ways to score varied wildly, there was no clear betting advantage in one style. The most profitable group was those with the single scorer. Those five teams combined to cover 60.3 percent of their games, and three of the five teams were profitable. The second best group, though, were the four-headed monsters. All three of those teams were profitable, and they combined to cover 58.4 percent. The groups with two or three scorers were profitable overall as well, though a smaller percentage of teams in each group were profitable. At the end of it all, we didn't really learn anything from looking at the scoring breakdown of the top 25. Fourteen of the teams had one or two scorers, and 11 had more than that. I suspect the results would be clearer and trends would emerge if we were to look at all of the teams in Division I, but that's too much work.
Instead, I decided to tackle the problem from a different angle. I took a look at the top 25 teams in the country in terms of profitability. This is where things got extremely interesting. The top 17 ATS teams in the country, and 23 of the top 25, have one or two main scoring threats. The split is about even - 13 have one, and 10 have two. That's a very powerful result. It essentially means that if you could have said with relative certainty that a team was going to share the scoring load over three or more players at the beginning of the season then you could have significantly reduced the likelihood that that team was going to be among the most profitable. It doesn't show in any way that a team with a larger number of scorers can't be profitable, or that a team with just one or two scoring threats is going to be profitable, but it does show that a very profitable team isn't likely to have a large number of scorers. For bettors with a long-term, analytical view that's the kind of insight that makes money.
Sadly, there is a gigantic grain of salt that needs to be taken with this information. Thirteen of the 15 least profitable teams in the country also have one or two main scorers. That's just about as overwhelming as for the moneymaking teams. That tells us a couple of things. First, the fact that a team is likely to have one or two main scorers is clearly no indication in and of itself that a team will have betting success. More significantly, it shows how hard it is to find significant trends in college basketball. There are so many teams, and they play so many styles of offense against so many different levels of competition that universal truths are few and far between in this sport.
There was one trend that was consistent between the two types of basketball. Having one superstar scorer wasn't a good road to profit. In the NBA, only one of the top 10 scorers played for a team with a winning ATS record. Things are a bit better in college, but not much - just eight of the top 30 scorers play for a betting winner. In both leagues, then, you need to be wary of a team that puts all of their eggs in one basket.