How to Cap Struggling Teams Down the Stretch
by Trevor Whenham - 02/14/2008
For college basketball teams that are playing well this is an incredibly exciting time of year. The conference season is drawing to a close, so every single game couldn't possibly be more important. Teams at the top of their conferences are playing to improve their seeding in the NCAA Tournament, while those one step behind the elite are trying to get themselves a ticket to the dance. Passion and intensity are what make college basketball so great, and they both jump up a notch or two as we get into February. There are a lot of teams that don't enjoy this time of year very much, though. For many teams, the season is all but over. There are a few games left to play, and maybe a conference tournament to bow out of early, but the opportunity to really accomplish anything this year is long gone. If it ever existed in the first place, that is. With more than 300 teams in Division I, and with spots for less than half in post-season tournaments, there are a lot of teams that fit into this category. It makes sense, then, that we need to be conscious of how we handicap them because the motivation will clearly be different for one of these lovable losers than it will be for a contender. Here, then, are five tips to keep in mind as we handicap the also-rans down the stretch in the college basketball season:
1. Don't assume a team has quit - This is the biggest single mistake bettors make late in the season in all sports. To assume that a team has quit because they aren't in the heart of the competition is to assume that all teams set out every year to win their conference. While that is a nice theory, it just isn't plausible. For some teams success would be defined by winning 10 games, or by improving on their record from the previous year, or by having a winning road record. A team may have lost several starters and was forced to essentially start from scratch. A team may have been ravaged by injuries throughout the year, but has finally become relatively healthy. Whenever you look at a team that is out of contention you need to go deeper than their record to attempt to understand their motivations and general state of mind.
2. Watch for a move towards younger players - If a team has been playing a lot of older players and hasn't been seeing a lot of success, they may start to move towards a younger lineup as the season goes on. The freshmen and sophomores are the future, so it only makes sense to get them the experience they need when the pressure is relatively low. It's a good idea to take a look at the roster of a non-contender before you make your pick to see if they are embracing youth. Even if they are the consequences can vary. Younger players are going to make a lot of mistakes, but if they are talented their enthusiasm and energy can often give a team a boost. You need to look at who is on the court and what they bring. A team with a young lineup could be an entirely different type of team than the older squad that started the season, so their record up to this point could be essentially irrelevant.
3. What is the coach's status? Not all bad records are created equal. If the coach is secure in his position and clearly enacting a plan to build for the future then a bad record could just be a necessary hurdle on the road to a brighter future. An obvious example of this is Michigan, which has been terrible in the first season under coach John Beilein. On the other hand, if the failure and frustration wasn't expected then the coach could be coaching his last few games. A team with a lame-duck coach is usually one that is in trouble. The coaching staff doesn't get listened to, and the players usually aren't motivated. Understanding the coach's job prospects is a great way to pick out the true losers from the strugglers.
4. Look for a senior boost - For hundreds of seniors around the country their long basketball career is nearing an end. That obviously isn't an easy thing to come to terms with. For a lot of players without pro prospects we often see a boost in their play late in the season. They want to go out at the top of their game. A team that has struggled during the year but which has a few senior starters can often be a candidate for a strong ATS finish.
5. Health matters - It's a long season, and injuries are always a factor at this point. That can work both ways for teams. Key injuries could be the reason why a team has struggled. That could mean that they are a better team than their record would indicate if they are healthy. If the injured players are back on the court than you can often catch value at this time in the year when the public makes a decision based on how the team has been instead of how they are now. On the other hand, if a team is in rough shape and morale is low then every ache and pain can seem like a big deal, and teams will play like their legs are all broken. It's important to both look at the injury reports and, if necessary, to research beyond what is reported nationally to get a grasp on what the injury status actually is to capture the biggest edge you can.