College Basketball Handicapping: Don't Overreact to Rare Losses
by Trevor Whenham - 2/18/2011
I have a serious pet peeve when it comes to college basketball -- how the polls and the public react to a single loss by a top-ranked team. We’ve seen it twice in just over a month, and it’s ridiculous in both cases.
First, Duke was the undefeated, unanimous No. 1 team in the country, but one road losses in a very hostile Florida State environment and they were dropped down to fourth place. All they have done since is win nine of 10, including all nine conference contests. However, the one loss totally destroyed the faith people had in them.
Last week we saw the same thing with another undefeated, unanimous No. 1 when Ohio State was dropped to second in one poll and third in the other when their only crime was losing a tight game on the road against a very good Wisconsin team.
I’m not nearly as opposed to the polls as some people are -- I think they can be a useful tool for handicappers. This consistent and predictable over-reaction to a loss at the top of the polls, though, is the biggest knock against the system of ranking teams. Instead of buying in to the panic the next time a No. 1 loses -- like Kansas did this week, and others will do after them -- keep these three things in mind: Here are some reasons college basketball handicappers should not overreact to these losses like the pollsters do.
The meaning of a loss - Do you know what one loss by a top team -- especially an undefeated one -- means during conference play? Pretty much nothing. The last five teams to cut down the nets in early April have lost at least three times in conference play, so one loss is a long way from a sign that the team is done. Nor is it necessarily a good reason to change your mind about which team is the best one in the country.
One loss could be a real problem if it came at home against a lousy team, but that was far from the situation in the cases of Duke and Ohio State. The Blue Devils lost at Florida State -- a team that has a history of giving Duke headaches. Ohio State lost to a very good, highly regarded Wisconsin team. Neither loss is a real issue in and of itself, yet 115 of the combined 130 AP voters who thought that each team was the best team in the country going into the game changed their mind after the loss.
If your opinion is so fickle that it can change that quickly then you probably need to work harder forming your opinions in the first place. A couple of losses in a row could be a trend, but one loss means little, and it certainly doesn’t reverse the trend of wins that got the top-ranked team up to where they were before the loss.
Why it happened is more important - Instead of panicking about the loss, the right thing to do is to look at why the loss happened. Sometimes losses just happen due to circumstances - shooters get cold, an opposing star gets red hot, energy is low, players are banged up, and so on. Other times losses just happen because they are playing on the road against another good team.
Neither of those situations is particularly concerning because they aren’t likely to replicate themselves. When there are reasons to be concerned is when the team lost because the opponent was able to spot and exploit a weakness. If a particular type of defense was effective or if a team’s confidence could be shaken by double-teaming a star throughout the game then that’s something that other teams can learn from and exploit in the future.
In short, if the opponent caused the loss and did it in a way that could be done by other teams then the panic could be warranted. That’s the minority, though.
This could create an opportunity - The betting public loves betting on high-profile teams. They aren’t particularly sophisticated in their analysis, though, so they rely heavily on the media and the pollsters to form their opinions for them.
When a top team loses and is hit hard in the polls as a result, then, the public is very likely to overreact to the situation. This is a rare chance, then, for you to get strong value betting on an elite team because the public won’t necessarily be as strongly supportive of the team right away.
Both of the teams we have talked about bounced back solidly from their losses and showed no lingering effects. I’m certainly not suggesting that they are a perfect bet in their next game or two, but the chances of finding value are better in this case than they are going to be at almost any other time for the team.
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