College Basketball Handicapping: Betting the Ivy League
by Robert Ferringo - 01/22/2009
In the fall, Fridays are for football. But in the winter, Fridays only mean one thing - well, other than Happy Hour - and that is Ivy League basketball.
In college my friends used to think I was a gambling addict because I'd furiously pour over info for wagers on Ivy League games on Friday nights. (Of course, I don't think they'd be surprised to now see me pounding my fist over a fallen WNBA halftime play or a successful NFL exhibition game score. But since I'm a trained professional I suppose it's okay.) But the Future Bosses Conference can be a profitable playground for anyone that can stomach fast break layups, excellent box outs and set shots. And on top of that I always enjoyed betting money on the Ivy League because I saw it as a way to exploit and make money off the spawn of the swill merchants that exploit and make money off of me.
This year's Ivy League is just a bit different from previous seasons in that the teams suck. I know that sounds odd, but since these players generally take school a little bit more seriously than, say, anyone on a John Calipari or Steve Fisher-coached team they usually stick around for four years. That allows these programs to build up some cohesion and they generally end up with one or two reasonably seasoned, veteran squads that usually roll over the weaker foes.
But not this year. The Ivy League returned just 21 of 40 starters from last year's rosters, which was one of the lowest percentages in the country. Also, as of the start of conference play there were just two teams - Harvard and Cornell - that had a winning percentage on the season of over .400 and just three of the eight teams had winning records against the spread. Finally, they are currently rated No. 28 of 32 in conference power rankings. They were No. 19 back in 2007 and No. 20 in 2005.
As a result the 2008-09 Ivy League is going to be even more unpredictable and a bit more volatile of a gambling market than in years past.
The Ivy League subscribes to the college football theory of we-don't-have-a-playoff-so-every-week-is-like-a-playoff so they don't have a postseason tournament. That means that the regular season winner earns the league's automatic bid so it actually does put a lot more importance on each week's league games. More emotion means more up-and-downs. And mix on top of that school rivalries that have been in place since the Grover Cleveland Administration and you can actually have yourself some heated situations.
Here is a Cliff's Notes breakdown of the Ivy League this year and where there could be money to be made:
Cornell - The defending champions are the only legitimate team in the bunch. They returned four starters from last year's tournament team and they are the only squad in the Ivy that can boast a seven-footer that can walk and solve nonlinear equations at the same time. Cornell is 11-6 on the season and has modest wins over LaSalle and both Loyola schools, as well as covers against Syracuse and St. Joe's. They scored an easy 12-point win in their first league game and they will be a heavy favorite in just about every game they play from here on out. This team has four double-digit scorers, and is actually still waiting on one of its best players, Adam Gore, to come back from a knee injury. This team can play.
Harvard - Tommy Amaker's Crimson are really the only challengers to Cornell and their marquee moment this season came from a stunning upset of Boston College right after the Eagles had beaten North Carolina. This team brought back four of five starters from last year's 3-11 league squad. But just that experience alone vaults them to the No. 2 slot. This is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country (No. 27). But like any team that relies on the deep ball, when they are on they are on and when they are off they are upset-prone.
Penn - The Quakers dominated this conference over the last decade and are a good "buy low" team right now in this league. I don't think they have the depth to win it, but their shoddy 4-9 record straight up and 2-5 ATS mark make them a value pick. Their top three scorers are forwards and this is a team that likes to pound the ball inside. That makes them a natural foil for Harvard and a good matchup. But three of their top four scorers are sophomores so this team still has some growing to do. Penn has played by far the toughest schedule of any of these teams and I think they will make some noise.
Yale - The Bulldogs played just two home games (of 11) prior to Jan. 3 this year so their slow start is a bit understandable. But they did manage to win at Oregon State and they played both Stanford (lost by eight) and Alabama (lost by three) close. They also have a four-game league road trip coming up so I hope the suitcases are still packed. Yale is one of the worst shooting teams in the country, but they have three solid scorers that are all upperclassmen and are capable of jumping up to bite one of the better teams.
Princeton - The Tigers probably play the best defense in the league and they are the team that wants to play a slow, ugly, grind-it-out game. (I know you're probably chuckling because that's what all Ivy League games look like, but humor me.) This team's top four scorers are a freshman and three guys who combined to average 6.5 points last year, so it's safe to say that second-year coach Sydney Johnson is still rebuilding.
Brown - If there is a sleeper in this conference I suppose it would be the Bears. They have three starters back from last year's second-place squad and they start four guys that are 6-5 or taller. However, they only have one true guard and their team defense is one of the worst in the league. They also lost their home league opener to Yale and now have to play five straight on the road against conference foes. They could get buried early, but don't count this team out as a solid dog play. Like Harvard they are light's out from three-point land.
Columbia - The Lions are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country (No. 328) but they are young and scrappy. That's a polite way of saying that they blow and this team simply lost too much from last year to compete this time around. Columbia's tallest player is 6-7 forward Joe Bova, who is pretty much a scrub, and this team is simply fodder.
Dartmouth - You have to be pretty bad to be pulling up the rear in the Ivy League, and Dartmouth is just that. They are ranked No. 336 of 344 teams in D-I. They do have one of the league's top scorers in Alex Barnett, but other than that these guys are simply waiting for the trust fund to kick in.
For more information on Ferringo's college basketball picks, check out his Insider's Page here.