As we get closer and closer to the start of the college basketball season every handicapper who loves the sport is looking for ways to get an edge out of the gate. One of the best ways to do that is to attempt to spot teams that could be significantly better than they were last year. Breakout teams often provide real value for a while because it takes a while for the media and the betting public to catch on to how well they have improved. Here are five ways for college basketball handicappers to spot teams that could be ready to improve dramatically.
The rule of improving thirds – This is my phrase for this way of looking at things. While the name may not be familiar the idea could be. Basically, what I am looking for are basketball teams that were better in the second third of the season last year than they were in the first third of the season, and better in the final third than they were in the previous two. A team that has consistently improved is one that could be ready to take a big step. What I do every year before the college basketball season starts is to spend the time quickly looking over the records and schedules of all of the teams from last season. It only takes a couple of hours to do it online. What I do is loosely break the season down into three thirds of about 10 games each. What I am looking for is teams that showed improvement from one third to the next to the next. Typically there are 40 or 50 teams, and I set them aside. From that group I look for teams that also showed statistical improvement – I focus on offensive and defensive efficiency primarily. I find it consistently amazing how often college basketball teams that break out one season are ones that I have identified in this way before the season starts. Steady, consistent improvement is the sign of a team on the right track. It’s not like they have to be great teams by the end of the season, either – they can start out awful as long as they keep improving.
Influx of new talent – A team can take a step forward in a big way when they get some high level new players joining them. The first and most obvious source of this boost is strong freshmen who will be starting right away. It’s important here that you look beyond just the guys who are likely to be one-and-done types. A guy can be a very valuable player who gives his team an immediate boost without being a future NBA megastar. The other, often overlooked source of new players are transfers and junior college players. These are players that are more experienced than freshmen, so they often are more immediately ready to contribute, and to help take their team to a new level as a result.
Easier schedule – Sometimes you can breakout just by playing an easier schedule than the year before. There are two main ways this can happen. First, if a non-conference schedule is much easier than it was then the team stands a chance of doing much better even if they aren’t dramatically improved. Second, depending on the conference structure, a team can get a break just by the luck of the draw – maybe they only have to play a conference power once instead of twice like last year, or maybe they get their tougher opponents at home this time.
Third year under a new coach – The third year isn’t a magic number for a new coach, but it is often when the corner is turned in a significant way. By the time they have two full seasons under their belt and are entering their third they have been able to implement their own systems and get them established, they have brought in a good number of their own players, they have established their own attitude and atmosphere around the team, and they are fully familiar with how the team and their league works. If a coach has shown competence to some extent in his first two years then college basketball handicappers should definitely have their eyes on the potential for a big year in the third year.
Returning players – If a NCAA basketball team is able to return all or most of their players from the previous year they are almost certainly going to be better – no matter how talented that lineup is, really. People spend a lot of time looking at starting lineups and the number of players that are returning. That’s important, but it isn’t enough. Basketball bettors also need to look at the bench players. Often times the loss of a couple of starters isn’t an issue at all if their replacements have been with the team and played solid minutes previously.