The NCAA Tournament is tough to handicap for all sorts of reasons. One of the biggest of those reasons is that college basketball teams have such different experiences in the regular season that it can be hard to really get a sense of how they stack up against each other. A team that can score at will in their conference may be an offensive force in the tournament as well, or they may struggle against their opponent. A stellar defensive team in the regular season may look perfectly average – or worse – in the postseason. Defensively it can be particularly tough to assess how teams stack up – which teams you can trust defensively, and which ones are doomed. Here are five important factors for college basketball handicappers to consider when looking at how to compare defensive strength among NCAA Tournament opponents:
Efficiency – One of the mistakes basketball bettors make is trying to compare statistics from team to team without context. If one college team allows more points and secures fewer rebounds per game on average than their opponent then many people will assume that that team will be the less effective defensive team. That’s not necessarily the case. Some NCAA leagues tend to play at a slower tempo than others do, and within those leagues some teams play at a higher tempo than others. Because the pace of games can differ so widely the total points or rebounds really don’t mean much. You can’t make an effective comparison between teams until you compare stats that don’t factor in the tempo. Efficiency in this sense means the number of points allowed per possession, or the number of rebounds given up per possession. When you have that for each NCAA hoop team then you can make a far more meaningful comparison of how good they really are – you are comparing apples to apples.
Common opponents – If both basketball teams in a game have played the same opponent then you can get a sense of how they stack up defensively. if one team was able to smother the opponent while the other team gave up a ton of points then you have a sense of relative strength. It’s important not to attach too much significance to this, though. The opponent could have been playing better one day than the other, or could have had injury issues or other factors working against them in one game.
Similar styles of opponents – More significant than common opponents may be similar styles of opponents. For example, if a team is playing a high tempo offense that is driven by their guards then you could look at how they played against similar opponents during the season. This can allow the college basketball handicapper to get a bigger sample size than the common opponents, and it can give them a much better sense of what is likely to happen.
Defensive consistency – The less consistent a college hardwood team is the harder it is to trust that team. If a team is able to play basically the same defensive game regardless of their opponent then they are mature, disciplined, and able to control the tempo. If their results are far less consistent defensively, though, then they may let offenses set the tempo, and they may lack the focus and intensity to perform well when the pressure is high.
Matchups – This is a huge factor, and one that is often overlooked or considered incorrectly by college basketball bettors. When looking at how a defense could be expected to perform is a given situation you need to consider who they are going to be asked to play against. If a defense has a big advantage in speed, talent, height and skill over their opponent then they are going to be much easier to trust than if the opposite is true. It’s important here, though, to make sure that you are comparing players that will actually be playing against each other. Sometimes you’ll read an analysis that suggests, for example, that one point guard has a big edge against the other. For college basketball handicappers, that could be very significant if they are playing man-to-man, but far less significant if they play a zone that won’t see the two directly responsible for each other for much of the game. Some zone defenses can also be useful for overcoming disadvantages in height, speed or skill as well, so matchup issues won’t be as significant as they might seem.