What Handicappers Look for in College Basketball Exhibition Games
At the start of the college basketball season many teams choose to play an exhibition game or two in an attempt to get ready for their season. These are typically against hopelessly outmatched opponents – often from as low as Division III. If elite teams do play Division I-A opponents then they certainly won't be good ones. These games aren't betting opportunities, but hardcore college basketball bettors who are hungry for the season to start can still get pretty excited about them because they are better than nothing. Occasionally something happens in one of these games that will get some national media exposure – either a team wins by an outlandish margin or one loses to an opponent that they have no business losing to. Those types of results can send the public into a frenzy of either excitement or panic. They really shouldn't these are just exhibition games after all, so they really aren't a good indicator of what will happen in the regular season. As a general rule it isn't worthwhile to worry too much about anything that happens in these exhibition games. Looking at it closer, though, here are three factors that definitely should be ignored from these games, and four things that are at least a little interesting:
The score – It is quite rare that the final score is actually a good indicator of what happened in the game in any case, but that is especially true in exhibition games. In any game the final score can be deceptive if one team quit playing hard before the end, or for many other reasons. In exhibition games, though, you don't know how much teams care about the game, or if they are just using it as a glorified practice before the start of the season. That means that they very likely aren't focused on the final score. Basically you might as well pretend that there was no final score from a handicapping perspective – anything else is potentially too misleading.
Offensive outbursts by players – Sometimes a player will have a massive offensive performance in one of these games. They'll pile up the points or get a pile of rebounds. That absolutely doesn't matter. Totally irrelevant. All it really tells us is that the player has some talent, but you probably knew that already. The opponent probably wasn't very good, and the team wouldn't be playing their offensive system as sharply as they will be in the season, so there is absolutely no guarantee that that player will be able to play as well in a real game as they did in the exhibition.
Media reaction – By the time the exhibition games roll around the media is desperate for something new to write about. They have previewed the season to death and want fresh material. Whenever something interesting happens in one of these games, then, they are likely to give it far more attention than it really deserves. It's best to drown out the hype or the horror of the media entirely.
Take note of…
Teams that don't look prepared – It's expected that teams won't play at full intensity, and that they won't be as sharp or comfortable as they will be later in the season. A team that looks unprepared, though, is a concern. By unprepared I'm talking about things like frequent shot clock violations because teams can't work together, regularly botched defensive assignments, and so on.
Players who are totally absent – If a player who is expected to be a big part of the team during the season doesn't play in the exhibition game, or only plays in a very limited way, then a closer look is required. Is the player injured in a way that hasn't been disclosed? Is he having trouble with the coaching staff? Are there off-court issues that could be a problem throughout the season? Or does the player just not need the work as much as other players do?
How the team handles having a lead – Chances are pretty good that a good team will have a big lead at some point in an exhibition game. How do they play at that point? Do they relax too much and throw it away? Do they maintain their focus and intensity? Do they focus on a responsible defensive game to maintain their margin? Their attitude and effectiveness here could be a good indicator of what could happen in the future – especially against weaker opponents down the road.
How the team handles adversity – If a team gets into a hole at some point in the game then you should look at how they responded. Did they sharpen their focus and fight right back into the game? Or did they tighten up and let the game slip away from them? In other words, did they respond positively or negatively? The way they respond here could give clues to how they will respond when the games really matter.
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