College Basketball Betting: How to Handicap Bubble Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 02/17/2009
For many college basketball teams at this time of year the only thing on their mind is trying to get a coveted tournament spot. There aren't nearly enough automatic bids for major conference teams, so that leads to a scramble for the at-large bids. Some of those are wrapped up by now, too, so there are many more teams in the hunt than there are available teams. By my count there are at least 19 teams with a good shot at making it currently sitting on the outside looking in at the tournament. For handicappers those bubble teams, along with the unstable at-large teams that those bubble teams are hoping to replace, create a real handicapping challenge. The way they will play down the stretch will unquestionably be affected by their situation. The trick is to determine what that effect will be. To help with that task, here are some issues to consider:
Age and experience - Trying to make the tournament is obviously a very stressful experience. The stakes are high, the games are tougher, and the players can read about their fate in a hundred different places. Young players have likely never been through anything like this. Even older players can be caught off guard if this is new to them. The older and more experienced a team is, the more likely they are to hold up down the stretch, and the easier it is to trust them.
Injury status - This seems obvious, but it is crucial - an unhealthy team is unlikely to hold up under the pressure of time on the bubble. Spending the time to look beyond the obvious injuries and the injury reports to see which players have bumps and bruises that will limit their effectiveness down the stretch is a profitable way to spend your time.
Quality of early schedule - A lot changes for a team between December and February, but the non-conference schedule can still be a very good indicator of how a team is going to react down the stretch. The big games against unfamiliar foes in the non-conference season are different than late season games against familiar conference foes, but they are similar in that the pressure is high, there will be unfamiliarity in both cases (the team in the first case, and the situation in the second), and only good teams are likely to hold up. The more a team was challenged in their non-conference play, and the better they did, the more likely they will be able to hold up down the stretch. In other words, if a team has shown they can rise to an occasion once then they can probably do it again.
Remaining schedule - To get off the bubble a team obviously has to keep winning. It's not as simple as just rolling over easy teams, though - that won't impress anyone. If you are looking for bubble teams to trust then you are going to want to find ones with a schedule full of tough enough teams to impress the tournament selectors, but still winnable. A team that has too easy a final schedule probably knows that they will be hard pressed to impress selectors and could fail to put up their best effort.
Coach history - A coach who has been in the position of trying to push a team over the top before knows what to expect and could be better prepared to have his team focused and ready to make the final push. A less experienced coach doesn't have that same advantage.
How good are the team's chances? - Remember that college basketball players are young. That means that they are vulnerable to highs and lows caused by external factors. The dimmer a team's chances of making the tournament get, the less likely they are to put out their top effort.
At this point, the four closest teams on the bubble in my book are Michigan, Kansas State, Cincinnati, and Georgetown. We can consider Michigan in regards to these issues as an example. The team is fairly young, and they have no experience with this situation since they haven't been to the tournament in a decade, and they were lousy last year. That's a strike against. They are healthy, though, and that works in their favor. So does their early schedule - they rose up to beat Duke and UCLA, so they could have another surprising win in the books over Purdue or Minnesota. Their remaining schedule is tough, yet it is packed with games that would make their case - Purdue, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. John Beilein is an experienced, savvy coach who has been around the block more than once. The team is also mentioned prominently as the first team out of the bracket right now, so they know their chances are good, and their motivation will be high. Despite their inexperience, it seems like a good bet that Michigan will play well down the stretch.