College Basketball Handicapping: May Be Time to Fade Butler
by Robert Ferringo - 01/24/2009
If this college basketball season were a game of Clue the answer would be obvious: It was The Butler, in The Horizon, with the Defense and Outside Shooting. But now another question remains: just how much longer can the Butler still do it?
In my humble opinion, the biggest surprise team in the country this year has been the Butler Bulldogs. The Heroes of the Horizon are sitting pretty at 17-1 straight up this year and are presently the No. 17 team in the country. They are in first place in their conference with a spotless 8-0 league record and they have wins - and covers - against their three primary competitors: Cleveland State, Wisconsin-Green Bay, and Illinois-Chicago. Oh yeah, and the CSU and UI-C wins were on the road.
But the real stunner is that of 259 total teams, Butler is the third-best in Div. I against the spread. They are currently 11-4-1 ATS for the season and they have covered seven of 10 games overall. Butler is also a stellar 8-1 ATS on the road this season.
Again, this is really incredible to me considering the amount of talent that this team lost from last year and the fact that just about everyone in the Horizon improved itself. And on top of that, Butler's run of success over the last two seasons has made them one of the most recognizable mid-major teams in the country. So between a roster overhaul, tougher competition and inflated numbers as the Bulldogs become more and more of a public wager I was certain that this would be a great year to fade Butler and make a killing.
Butler is an amazing 76-12 SU and since the start of the 2006-07 season. But even more impressive is the fact that they have covered the spread in 64 percent of their last 81 games. At 50-28-3 they have been just about the best bet on the board of any team in the country over the last three years.
So how are they doing it? Well, honestly, I can't really say. I'm very, very rarely wrong about teams when I handicap their prospects at the beginning of the season. I can tell you who are going to be the ATM machines and who are going to be the money burners before one ball is bounced. But in my time capping this is as off on a team as I have been.
The primary reason that Butler has been able to hold up against the numbers this year is that the oddsmakers, like myself, severely underestimated them. Butler lost four starters, five of six players, and every single key component from the foundation that led o their 2006-07 and 2007-08 tournament runs. We're talking starting point guard (Mike Green), money player (A.J. Graves), top shooter (Pete Campbell) and over 80 percent of their scoring and rebounding from last year. A drop-off would be natural. But Butler might actually have played even better this season then they had last year when they went just 17-14-2 ATS.
Butler actually has been more efficient on both ends of the floor this year than they were last year. This season they boast the No. 29 offense and No. 37 defense while last year they finished out at No. 30 and No. 51, respectively. The Bulldogs are in the top 40 in total defense (No. 3), field goal defense (No. 23), and 3-point defense (No. 40), so it is clear what area of the floor they are winning with. They are grinding out games on defense and then finishing them from the free throw line, where they shoot 72.6 percent as a team. Add in the fact that Brad Stevens' teams executes as well as anyone in the nation and all of those factors are helping them get over numbers in the last five minutes.
Finally, their players are simply better than I thought. Matt Howard is their go-to guy underneath and is a tough matchup for just about any forward in the country. He's a Hansbrough-type where his somewhat reckless style either means points or free throws. Guards Shelvin Mack and Willie Veasley form a more athletic backcourt than they have had in years, and Gordon Hayward might be the best shooter in the country.
However, as well as they are playing I still think that the primary reason for their ATS success if the fact that the books sagged the numbers on Butler in a big way. To this point of the year they have only been favored by 10.0 or more three times. Last year at this point in the season they had been a large chalk in 11 of their first 20 contests.
I actually STILL don't think that this team is better than last year's unit. I don't think that they will win the conference tournament and I think they will be a losing bet over the second half of the year. Maybe I'm stubborn, but I think that their lack of experience and the fact that they have been playing over their heads is simply setting them up for a fall.
First, only 23 of the 344 Div. I teams in the country shoot more total 3-pointers per game than Butler and only nine other teams in the nation take a higher percentage of their overall shots from behind the arc. Any team that is that reliant on hitting from deep leaves themselves susceptible to an upset. It also makes it harder to cover fatter spreads because, again, they aren't going to overpower weaker foes.
Next, their competition is not only better than last year but there are simply more quality teams to trip them up. Milwaukee, Green Bay, and Wright State are all currently ahead of the preseason favorite, Cleveland State. Loyola is getting healthy and after a hot start Illinois-Chicago has slowed down, but the Flames still had Butler on the ropes last weekend with an 11-point halftime lead that they choked away. These teams are quality, and they are just getting better.
Finally, I'm simply going to trust my opening read. I think inexperience will catch up with this team as it gets deeper into the year. I like the other teams in this conference to start pushing back and I think that the oddsmakers will reverse their generous ways in the second half of league play. Also, coaches and players in this league will make adjustments and I think they will capitalize on getting a second crack at this Butler squad.
But hey, I've been wrong before….
For more information on Ferringo's college basketball picks, check out his Insider's Page here.