Ranked Teams On ATS Slide
by Trevor Whenham - 02/08/2008
Spending just a little bit of time analyzing stats and crunching numbers can sometimes turn up some valuable college basketball handicapping insights. More often, though, it can give you a dangerously incomplete picture that could lead you to lose some money if you followed through on it. For an example we need to look no further than an interesting situation that has cropped up regarding ranked teams in college basketball.
The current top 25 teams, or at least the AP version of such, have combined for a pretty solid ATS record of 261-202-12. That's a winning percentage of 56.4 percent - enough to turn a healthy profit no matter how you go about it. In fact, that winning percentage is actually a bit low, because that total also includes all of the games in which two ranked teams faced off. Those games obviously create a win and a loss, and thus pull the winning percentage down lower. Fourteen of the 25 teams are profitable on the year, and five of those teams have generated a very healthy flat betting profit of more than five units from flat college basketball betting. Furthermore, only two of the losing teams are as many as two games below .500, while the rest are either at even or just one game below. In other words, there are no truly terrible ATS performers in the whole lot. Looking at that would cause more than a few bettors to drool in anticipation over the road to easy profits they had found - just bet on any ranked team playing an unranked team and you'll grind out an easy profit over the season.
If only it were as simple as that. A look at the games played between Jan. 1 and Feb. 7 by ranked teams against unranked opponents tells a vastly different story. Over that time there have been 202 qualifying games played. The ranked team has covered the spread in just 92 of them, and pushed in five. That leaves 105 games in which the unranked team has covered or won outright. That's a 46.7 percent winning percentage, and a quick way to lose a pile of money. There were only six profitable days in the entire month of January. Suddenly that sure thing doesn't seem like such a good deal any more.
So how can things change so much? Why have teams that have been decent over the course of the season struggled so badly ATS in the new year? There are several possible explanations, including:
1. The turn of the calendar also approximately corresponds with the start of the conference schedule. The top 25 is made of largely of teams from major conferences, or from the top tier of mid-majors, so the schedule gets harder when they have to play conference rivals, and when they have to play away from home more often than a lot of the top programs are used to in the non-conference season.
2. The top 25 may become less meaningful as the season progresses. At the start of the year the list is made up of teams that are coming into the season strong, and those teams aren't challenged enough to prove that they don't belong. As teams get more games under their belt, though, the difference between the 15th ranked team and the 50th best team in the country is small. One loss can drop a team right out of the rankings, or vault them up several positions. As such, the top 25 teams could be given more respect because of their ranking than they may actually deserve.
3. As football season winds down the public becomes aware of college basketball. If you haven't been spending a lot of time following the sport through the year then you would be likely to rely on the rankings to tell you who is good and who isn't. The influx of uniformed public money would very likely, then, cause lines to be more inflated for the top teams in January than they are in November when all public eyes are on the gridiron.
4. Teams are banged up. It's a long season and this is the point in it when many teams hit a lull before ramping up for the post-season push. That means that ranked teams might not be playing to their capacity at the beginning of the year. When you combine that with the fact that unranked teams will usually be very motivated to be playing a ranked team regardless of how their overall health is you have the ingredients for plenty of upsets or games that are closer than they should be.
Whatever the reason, a couple of things can be learned from this. On a specific level, it's clear that the ranking should pretty much be ignored after Christmas. Decide which team you like in a game depending on whatever factors you like, but you probably don't want to make the polls a significant one of those factors. On a more general level, this is a very good example of how stats can show us a picture that might not always be what they seem. You need to look past the initial appearance of the numbers to see what they really mean.