How to Handicap Bubble Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 03/05/2008
As the college basketball season draws to a close and the conference tournaments get underway, with the Big Dance ever closer to tip-off, the sports nation's eyes are pointed towards bubble teams. The tournament is a brilliant marketing success on so many levels, and one is that the public has a seemingly endless fascination over which teams are going to make it into the bracket, and which ones are going to end up somewhere far less prestigious. As with anything else that the public is interested in, college basketball handicappers need to pay special attention to bubble teams and the ways to bet on them to make sure that they aren't falling into traps that could damage their bankroll.
The first thing bettors need to do is remember what a bubble team is. They are good enough to deserve consideration, but they aren't good enough to be in the field already. In other words, they are decent but flawed. Any time you are considering betting on a decent but flawed team, a good bettor has to do it with caution, and not before first considering just how they match up. You can't let yourself give a team too much credit just because they are on the bubble.
The tournament gets to be a bigger and bigger spectacle every year. As more and more media attention gets focused on it, getting a ticket in becomes a bigger deal. Schools that don't normally make it can see a huge boost in fundraising, recruiting and attendance from punching a ticket. Those that usually make the field face unrelenting expectations from their fans. That means that playing on the bubble involves incredible amounts of pressure and public scrutiny. If a team in that situation isn't used to it, they can find themselves in a difficult spot. If they don't handle it well, they won't perform at their best, and they may not meet the expectations that bettors have for them. This reality is especially crucial to recognize because the general public perception is that teams on the bubble will lay it all on the line and play with as much passion as the can possibly manage. That can make bubble teams especially unattractive.
It stands to reason that another potential betting situation could arise from the pressure the teams face. A team under pressure that isn't familiar with it is probably going to come out tight, and they are probably going to tighten up on defense because they know the great cost of losing. This effect is probably even more significant when a team is playing in front of a home crowd hungry for a post-season berth. As a result, the under deserves more attention in a game featuring a bubble team than it does in general.
The biggest consideration when thinking about bubble teams is the impact of the public. The public loves the idea of bubble teams because it appears in the media and online so often, and the media covers them more every year because the public loves them so much. Among the many problems that that causes is that the media has to feed this hunger some how, and this means that the definition of a bubble team can be pretty sketchy. Teams are called bubble teams, and face the pressure associated with that, when it can sometimes require a bit of a miracle to get that team into the field. That means that a smart bettor has to apply the bubble team thinking not just to the teams that they feel are in a bubble position, but also the teams that the major media outlets are touting. Things like ESPN's BracketBuster weekend give more teams the perception that they have a shot, and make it harder for handicappers to deal with.
The talk about the bubble really kicks into high gear at a time after football and before the NBA playoffs and baseball, so the betting public is looking for something to throw their money away on. That means that bubble teams draw more attention than those same teams would have earlier in their seasons. You can also safely assume that the public action is going to be skewed heavily towards the bubble teams, and that it will be more significant the higher profile the team is or the more coverage a team has had. There are a couple of things you need to do in response to this situation. First, you can probably safely assume that the lines for public teams are inflated by a point or two. This would be caused by a combination of the line makers setting them higher in anticipation of the public action, and the public jumping on the teams. The impact of those effects will be even more significant in games that are televised outside of the regions of the teams involved. The other thing that is crucial to do is to keep an eye on the public action and the line movements. Any time you see heavy action on a bubble game you might want to take it as a signal to sit back and take the game off. There are just too many factors beyond your control to make it an attractive betting situation in most cases.