One of the concepts we hear a lot about when handicapping college basketball is the importance of returning starters. The basic theory is simple – the more returning starters a team has, the more comfortable they are going to be with the demands of their coach and the speed of college basketball, and the more effective they will be. It’s a widely held theory, and a reasonably sound on e- at least in general terms. Like most easy to state theories, though, it’s not quite as straight forward as it might seem. Here are six things to for college basketball handicappers to keep in mind when you are attempting to measure the significance of returning starters for a particular team:
Significance is bigger earlier in the season – The earlier in the college basketball season that a game occurs, the more significant a mismatch in the number of returning players is. The reasoning for this is clear – after new starters have played several games they are accustomed to the game and the demands on them, and they are no longer raw and inexperienced. By the tail end of conference play the number of returning starters is all but irrelevant, while in the first weeks of the season it is very important and can create some real opportunities. It’s all about timing and context.
Position matters – A NCAA hoop team that has four returning starters from a decent team last year would, at a quick glance, look to be in very good shape. If the one player who is new is a point guard, though, and the offense is typically reliant on the point to set the tone and distribute the ball, then the team isn’t going to be nearly as strong as it might seem to be based on number of returning starters. On the other hand, if the basketball team is a high speed, three guard team then they would likely be very strong if the one new starter was the center. Needless to say, not every position is equal on the court for any team. The importance of different positions differs from team to team based on their style and the type of players they recruit and how they use them.
Doesn’t matter when players aren’t good – If a team was really lousy – slow on defense and inaccurate and plodding on offense – then having five returning starters isn’t necessarily a good thing. Basketball players will generally take steps forward with every extra year they play, but the turning of the calendar isn’t suddenly going to make a bad team good, or even turn a bad team into a decent one. In many cases a team is improved in the long term – and even in the shorter term – because a starter has moved on. You can’t just judge a team by the number of returning starters without also judging the quality of those starters and the general quality of the team the previous year.
Look at the coaching system – Some college basketball coaches play a very intricate, complicated system that takes a long time for players to get accustomed to. When they are new to it they spend more time thinking than reacting and that affects their play in a significant way. For a coach like that returning players are a very good thing because new players are usually a liability before they become an asset. Other coaches play a more straight-forward, A-B-C style of game that won’t challenge players much beyond what they were doing in high school, and which relies on athleticism and instinct more than well developed systems. For coaches like that returning starters aren’t necessarily a requirement for success.
Is the coach new? – This is something that I see that gets missed far too often. I’ll read about a team that has four or five returning starters, and that will be touted as a good thing. If the team has a new coach, though, then the impact of those returners isn’t nearly as significant as it could be – they have to adjust to the new coach and the new system just like new starters do. The impact of this is far less if the new coach is a former assistant for the team, but even in those cases the impact of the returning starters is somewhat limited.
New starters might not be all that new – Sometimes a college team can look on the surface like they have to replace a lot of starters, but the truth is that they aren’t really in as bad of shape as it seems. For example, if a basketball coach likes to run a deep bench, and 9 or 10 players see double digit minutes in every game, then players who won’t be listed as returning starters could still have hundreds of game minutes under their belt. A team in a situation like that may not miss a beat despite losing a starter. It’s important, then, for college basketball handicappers not only to look at the number of returning starters, but who the new starters are and what kind of experience they have.