There is still a whole lot of college basketball left to play this year. It would be dangerous to assume that we really know how good or bad teams really are – or are going to be by the end of the year. We can’t help but be surprised by some of what we have seen so far, though. Teams that get off to a surprisingly fast start can be tough for handicappers to deal with. When a team jumps out of the gate with surprising power then we have to determine if they are for real, or if what we have seen is just an illusion. Reading a basketball team wrong can be costly – especially because the public is going to tend to buy into any fast start, so value can be hard to find if you like the team. Here are five questions college basketball handicappers can ask themselves as they try to determine how sustainable a fast start is:
Who have they played? – This is the first and most obvious question, but one that frequently gets overlooked. If you have compiled an impressive unbeaten record, but you have done it against second rate teams what have you truly accomplished? Not much in my book. Some teams tend to schedule easy out of the gate – sort of a de facto preseason. If they win those basketball games then it means nothing. Losing would be the only story that would really matter. The Big Ten is the worst offender for this in my mind – year after year teams come into conference play with big records that don’t at all reflect their actual level of skill. If a team has an impressive record against a challenging schedule, though, then you have to take what they have done seriously. Most telling is a college team that has lost just one or two games while winning five or six, yet the wins have come against the weak teams, and they have been unable to beat their only real competition. In that case the record is almost totally meaningless.
Who is coming up? – Almost as important as who they have played is who they have coming up on the schedule. If they have had good success so far against up tempo teams, but they are going to be playing against a few lower tempo, more defensive minded teams in the next few games then what they have done so far isn’t very significant. On the other hand, if the basketball team has succeeded against the same styles of teams that they will be playing then what they have done could be significant for the sports bettor.
How are they winning? – People spend too much time worrying about the wins and losses a team has, and too little thinking about how they wound up with those wins in the first place. Is the team getting lucky to win – relying on poor shooting or sloppy play from their opponents? Are they barely coming out on top in games that consistently come down to the last seconds? In those cases you might not have a lot of confidence that they can keep doing what they are doing. If the team is winning handily while controlling the tempo and consistently shutting down the opposing offense, though, then there is a good chance that what they are doing is reasonably sustainable.
Is improvement likely in their roster going forward? – Sometimes a college basketball team will start out well but just can’t keep that up. Typically a team should improve throughout the season as their players get more experienced and more comfortable with the system and each other. Sometimes, though, players start the season at such a high level – due to excitement and adrenaline – that they play at a level that they can’t possibly sustain throughout the season. Simply put, if a team is playing beyond themselves early on then they can’t get any better, and they will likely get worse as the wear and tear of the season starts to hit them. The more it seems like a team is winning because the players are playing as well as they can, the less likely that that team can sustain their start.
Were expectations coming into the season accurate? – There is certainly no shortage of people out there who will give you opinions of teams and their chances heading into a season. You don’t have to get a license or pass an intelligence test before you offer your opinion,so there is absolutely no guarantee that an opinion you read or hear – no matter where you read or hear it – is valid or accurate. So often people will have to make predictions about a whole lot of teams, so they don’t have the time or desire to do the work involved to make the opinions meaningful. Instead they just rely on what has happened in the past and the few most obvious features of a basketball team. When a team is performing very differently than expected, then, one thing that is important to do is to make sure that the expectations actually make sense. Sometimes a team is performing pretty much how they should be, but the so-called experts just missed out on their assessment. One classic example that experts often get fooled by is returning starters. When a team loses three or four starters a lot of people assume that the team is in trouble. Sometimes, though, the players who are taking over are significantly better than those that left. As experienced college basketball handicappers know, older doesn’t always mean better, so a young NCAA basketball team can often be better than expected.