March Madness Handicapping: Betting or Fading Bubble Teams
by Trevor Whenham - 3/4/2014
We are right in the heart of the bubble season in college basketball. Things are getting particularly tense as teams start to realize that there are more teams with a claim on a spot in the NCAA Tournament field than there are spots to be had. The bubble can provide excellent betting opportunities for bettors, but to achieve those profits you need to be good at assessing what the bubble is going to mean for different teams. Some teams are lifted by their bubble status and play better than ever. Others struggle under the pressure and disappoint. Here are seven questions to ask when determining how a team might fare:
Which way are they trending?: In general terms, a team can wind up on the bubble because they started strong but have faded as the season went along or because they struggled out of the gate but have found their game more down the stretch. It’s important for bettors to just look beyond the record and see how the team has gotten to that particular record. Obviously, it’s easier to trust a team that has found their form as the season has gone along than it is to find one that has forgotten how to win.
Are they healthy?: At this point of year nothing is more important than health for teams. No team is completely healthy, but some are obviously better than others. If a team is able to put their ideal lineup on the court, and if that lineup is able to play as many minutes as they ideally would at full strength, then they are going to be competitive. If health leads them to compromise on their roster, though, then they may struggle.
How experienced are they?: A team on the bubble will face intense pressure — and even more so if they come from a strong basketball school with a demanding fan base. A team that has never been through that before could struggle under the pressure. If the team — or at least the core of the team — has gone through a similarly intense situation in the past, though, then they could be much more suited to handle it now.
How’s the coaching?: I would make the argument that coaching is more important in college basketball than in any other sport. A great coach can elevate his team when the pressure is massive, and a lesser coach can let a talented team down. Strong coaching is why we have seen so many mid-majors that shouldn’t be talented enough make deep runs and knock out much more talented teams.
What’s the remaining schedule?: The schedule can make a big difference for bubble teams, but not necessarily in the same way that it does in other teams. When a team is making a playoff push in the NBA, for example, they want the remaining schedule to be as easy as possible because a win is a win. In college basketball, though, wins on the bubble are not all created equally. Teams would ideally like a schedule that is easy enough to be manageable but challenging enough that the selection committee will take note. A schedule that is too easy can often be a bad thing because the team can’t make a statement. It’s not uncommon to see a team falter in an easy game down the stretch because they feel like the game doesn’t matter — which it likely wouldn’t if the team had won.
Are they high profile?: Not all bubble teams will draw the same attention. A high-profile team will draw a lot of attention, and public bettors will be paying close attention — and betting heavily on or against the team depending on the public mood. Public betting action is always important, but it is especially important to keep an eye on here when public interest is elevated and higher betting volumes can have a stronger impact on value.
How are other bubble teams doing?: Bubble teams do not control their own destinies. They need to take care of their own business, and they need to hope that other bubble teams falter. When you are evaluating bubble teams, then, you can’t look at them in isolation, but you need to examine them in the greater context of the other bubble teams around them. You also need to keep an eye on how things turn out as conference championship games are played. If teams that wouldn’t otherwise have made the field win the tournament to get an automatic bid then the competition for tournament spots gets more intense — especially if there are other teams in that conference that will get at-large bids.
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