College Basketball Handicapping: Second Conference Games
by Trevor Whenham - 02/13/2009
In most college basketball conferences, teams play each other twice. Or at least some teams play each other twice. The first game can be very helpful in handicapping the rematch. If you aren't careful, though, what happened in the first game can lead you to make false assumptions about the second game. In order to make sure that you don't make one of those costly mistakes, you need to consider whether the first result was accurate, and whether it is a sound indicator of what is likely to happen the second time around.
We can see how misleading the first games can be just by looking at Michigan State. The Spartans beat Ohio State by nine in their fist meeting. They were able to limit the outside shooting effectiveness - mostly by trading inside access for outside control at times. The result seemed realistic and sustainable. Sure enough, Michigan State won by 11 on the road the second time around. It's not always that easy, though. The Spartans beat Northwestern by 11 in Evanston in their first meeting. Michigan State owned the boards, and the Wildcats had no answer for Raymar Morgan. The game was closer than it needed to be only because Michigan State didn't push to win it by more. Given the result and the apparent mismatches, you would confidently assume that the result would be similar when Michigan State got another piece of Northwestern - this time at home. Not so much. Northwestern won the game by seven, and Raymar Morgan was a total non-factor.
That's just one set of examples, but it makes it clear that all rematches are not created equal. You can never know for sure how a team is going to react the second time they play each other, but you can have a better chance of figuring it out if you ask yourself some questions about the game and the teams involved:
Location, location, location - You need to consider where the second game is being played. It's not as simple as saying that the home team usually wins, though. You need to look at how the two teams play at home and on the road. You need to consider two timelines, too - the whole season and the last couple of games. A team's ability to travel or defend their home court is at least as significant as what happened the first time the teams met.
Player status - The first game is most meaningful to handicapping the second game if the lineups of the two teams are essentially the same in both cases. Injuries, suspensions, benchings, or changes in roles can lead to different lineups, different matchups and different games. There can be a difference even if a player is walking wounded. Looking at recent games to see players who are getting reduced minutes can give you a boost.
Young players developing or playing new positions - As the season progresses, younger players are given more of an opportunity to shine, and their confidence and success can change a team significantly. Tyreke Evans of Memphis is a good example. The highly-regarded freshman played reasonably well from the start, but he didn't find a position he was comfortable with early on, and the team didn't have a good point guard option to get him and his offensive teammates the ball. In December, Evans was moved to the point. He's been successful, and the team is much better since the move. A team that has a number of key young players is far less likely to look the same as they did in the first meeting than a veteran team is.
Was a gimmick involved? - A lesser team can occasionally beat a better one using a gimmick - a type of offense or defense that works well against the strengths of the better team, and for which the better team has neither familiarity nor a response. That only works once, though. Given time to prepare for the rematch, the gimmick that worked the first time around won't be effective the second time. That means that you can trust a straightforward, comprehensible win far more than an unexpected, strange one.
Comparative motivation - One team always needs a game more than the other one. That can change between the first game and the second. This sounds overly simplistic, but it's true - if you can figure out which team needs the game more you have probably figured out which team is going to cover the spread.
Teams' form - Again, this one is obvious, but probably more important than any other factor. How a team has played in their last few games is far more important than how they played against an opponent a month ago. Though you could probably never have spotted the Northwestern upset, you could have had a clue from Michigan State's recent struggles against the spread - 1-2-1 ATS after covering three in a row - that something wasn't quite right. Combine that with the fact that Northwestern had found good form and covered two in a row after failing to cover five straight, and you could see how you could give the Wildcats a chance ATS.