College Basketball Handicapping: Teams With Nothing to Play For
by Trevor Whenham - 02/11/2009
We are heading into the final month of the regular season in college basketball. For a lot of teams, that means that they are ratcheting up their game to fight for a NCAA Tournament bid. More teams, though, are already coming to the realization that they are playing for next year. Barring a conference tournament miracle, at least half of the teams in the country don't have any hopes of doing anything besides finishing the season. For handicappers, the trick is to determine how to best deal with these teams. Not all hopeless teams are the same - they are in the position they are in for different reasons. That means that they need to be dealt with differently. To determine how to deal with these teams you can ask yourself these five questions:
What were the expectations for the team coming into the season? - A team that was projected to win five games this year will be thrilled if they have six wins already. They will likely be motivated and focused down the stretch because the plan that they set out for the season is working out. On the other hand, if a team was expected to win 15 games and be in the midst of the conference battle then that six win total would be a virtual death sentence, and they are not at all likely to be at their best in their remaining games.
How old is a team? - A team that is made up largely of freshman and sophomore starters and key bench players usually isn't going to be particularly competitive in most circumstances. Those teams would have known that coming into the season, and will be focused on learning and developing so that they can be competitive in coming years. A team that is made up of older players and is struggling, though, isn't likely to play particularly well. They know that their careers are coming to and end, and that things just aren't working out. The effort is likely to be worse from a team like this, and they could be more reliably bad down the stretch. A young team is more likely to keep trying, and that makes them harder to handicap.
What is the coach's future? - For some coaches a bad record is what they were expected to get. Maybe they haven't been with the team for a long time, or they don't yet have the talent they need to succeed. For example, Indiana has been absolutely terrible in the Big Ten, but Tom Crean's job couldn't possibly be more secure because everyone knew the team was going to be lousy, and Crean hasn't yet recruited players who fit his system. For many coaches, though, the bad record comes at a bad time. If the failure comes in a season where expectations are high then the coach could fear for his security. The same goes for a coach who has had a few bad seasons in a row. Players know if a coach isn't likely to stick around, and they aren't going to play nearly as hard for him - especially if he isn't a particularly popular coach. A little bit of detective work on this front can be very helpful for finding teams likely to underperform down the stretch.
How is the schedule? - Conference schedules should, in theory, be well balanced. The rarely are, though. A team's schedule can lead to a deceptive record. If the easier teams were concentrated in the first half of the schedule then a team can have a better record than they probably deserve, and they will fall back to earth as the schedule gets tougher. Marquette fits into this category - the elite teams in the Big East are mostly still to come. On the other hand, a team could face a punishing early schedule, but that could condition them for some success when they play some weaker teams down the stretch. You also need to judge the non-conference schedule. Losing five games to ranked teams is probably more impressive for a major conference team than winning five games against teams no one has ever heard of. In short, you can't judge a team by its record until you understand what makes up that record.
Who is playing? - Understanding the roster is crucial for handicapping struggling teams. Do they have injuries that are affecting them significantly? Has a key player returned from a long absence recently? Have they started sitting out older players to give the next generation time to prepare for the future? Have starters been benched recently? Are they playing several different players at key positions like the point to try to find someone who will work? Any sign of instability or a change in focus can help you determine the mindset of the team and the chance that they will put forth decent efforts down the stretch.