College Basketball Handicapping: Conference Play
by Trevor Whenham - 01/09/2008
One of the big challenges of college basketball handicapping is that things are constantly changing. In the NFL, for example, every game during the regular season is a regular season game, and can be looked at in much the same way. In college basketball, though, the season goes through many distinct phases, and each must be handled differently: preseason games give way to early season tournaments, followed by non-conference action, then conference play, followed by the conference tournament and then whatever postseason action the team may qualify for. If you aren't making adjustments in your handicapping for each different part of the season then you are not maximizing your potential results. As we head into two months of conference action, here are six handicapping tips you need to keep in mind:
1) Familiarity changes everything - In non-conference play you often see games between teams that have never played before, or that only rarely see each other. In conference play, depending on the conference, most teams see each other twice a year, every year. The familiarity built over time means that a unique system or outstanding payers won't necessarily be as effective in conference play as they are at the start of the year. If you play a player or an offense every year then you learn how to minimize the effectiveness. If a team does well in early season play, and that success can be attributed to the incredible success of a single player, or to an offensive or defensive system that is unique, then the team is a candidate to fall back to earth a bit as conference play comes along.
2) Non-conference records can be overvalued - It's easy to be seduced by a team that only lost a game or two in the non-conference schedule, but that doesn't necessarily matter. Some teams play extremely tough non-conference schedules designed to have them battle-hardened by conference play. Others turn the first two months of the season into a cupcake factory. It's far more important to look at how the team did relative to the strength of their opposition than it is to look at their record. It is not only possible but common that at team that went 9-4 or so is a significantly better team than one that went 12-1. Teams with inflated records can create real opportunities for value if the public is more impressed by the record than they should be.
3) Look at the three best games, and the three worst - There's more to be learned from the extremes of a team's schedule than from the average performance. Because of the wide range of opponents that teams play, getting a real sense of the shape a team is in coming into conference play can be almost impossible. Instead of trying to sort through every game every team played, a more meaningful comparison can be made by looking at the three best games and the three worst games every team played. In that way you can see what the teams did well when they were successful, and why they struggled when they weren't. That, in turn, can help you to spot mismatches and opportunities in the team's conference schedule.
4) Put yourself in the minds of the public - The start of the conference season corresponds with the end of college football, and with the NFL playoffs. That means that there are far fewer football games every week. As a result, a lot of public money is directed towards basketball for the first time. To take maximum advantage of this situation, you need to be aware of what teams the public is likely to blindly support. That means that the public will inflate some lines more than they should be. You can find value if you are on the lookout.
5) Watch the travel plans - Some teams set up their non-conference schedule so that they rarely have to leave the cozy confines of their home court. In conference play, a team has to play half of their games away from home. If a team hasn't played away from home much, or if they haven't played well when they have traveled, then they could be in trouble in conference play.
6) Understand strength of conference - It just as important to understand how good a conference is as it is to understand how a particular team has played. A decent team can look fantastic if it plays in a conference that is weaker than it is or its opponents have been. Conversely, a very good team could be set to struggle if they play in a conference that is very strong from top to bottom. Evaluating the conference strength can give you a sense of how a team should perform, and will allow you to compensate if the team performs better or worse than that for a stretch of games.