We are far enough into the college basketball season that some real surprises have started to emerge. Every year there are a couple of teams that weren’t even ranked in the preseason polls – and perhaps didn’t even get votes in the poll – that vault into the rankings or even into the top ten. Any time a team so dramatically exceeds their expectations handicappers are left to determine if what we are seeing is a fluke, or if the team really has improved as significantly and rapidly as it seems. Here are five questions for college basketball handicappers to ask themselves to help determine which is the case:
Why were opinions low heading into the season? – Sometimes a college basketball team deserves to be flying under the radar. Perhaps they came into the season with a whole lot of unanswered questions thanks to changes in personnel, schemes, or coaching. Or maybe there were injury issues that caused real concerns. In those cases and others like them the low opinion heading into the season is totally justifiable, and you can move onto the next question. Sometimes, though, a college team doesn’t get the attention they deserve just because they weren’t sexy enough to get the attention. Maybe they come from a lesser conference and aren’t named Gonzaga or Butler so they don’t get enough attention. Or maybe they are a major conference team that isn’t traditionally a major basketball power. Whatever the cause, quite often we can explain a significant move up the ratings simply by the fact that people weren’t paying attention to how good the basektball team was in the first place. If a team was clearly overlooked going into the season but isn’t doing anything other than playing like they are capable of then there is no reason to be concerned about their rapid climb.
Who have they played? – There is nothing that can make a team look better than they really are than a generous NCAA schedule. All you need to look at as proof of this is the standings in major conferences at the start of the conference season and then again at the end. Heading into conference play in a major conference there are always plenty of teams with records fattened by feasting on underwhelming teams. By the end of the season, though, several of those basketball teams have fallen back to earth. A team can be higher in the rankings than they should be if they start the season undefeated – even if 11 of their 12 opinions are close to worthless. Another way that schedules can be deceptive is if teams have played teams that came into the season with high expectations but which clearly aren’t living up to those expectations. In that case a win can seem far more impressive than it really was.
Are players playing beyond themselves? – Quite often you’ll see a college team get off to an incredible start, but they are doing it because a player or two, or even the whole lineup, is playing at the very top end of their capabilities. It could be that the team is young and that freshmen have started playing very well. Or that they have older players that are really playing with confidence and cohesion. If a team has been lifted by particularly strong play, though, there is very good chance that the team won’t be able to sustain that level throughout the season. The college basketball season is long, and you can’t be at your peak for that long. Even the very best teams go through ebbs and flows during the season.
Are one or two players carrying, or is the burden shared? – If a team is achieving big things because one player is absolutely shooting the lights out then the team makes me nervous generally speaking as a college basketball bettor, the more evenly shared the scoring and defensive production is for a team, the more potential there is for that team to sustain their play. If there are just one or two players that do the bulk of the heavy lifting then the team is vulnerable – opponents will target those players aggressively, the player will get banged up or worn down by all the playing, or the strain and increased challenge of conference play can limit their effectiveness.
How do they match up in conference play? – Sometimes a basketball team can have a great record against very good teams and still not be in good position for conference play. The difference between conference play and non-conference play is that teams can choose their own opponents in non-conference play. that means that they can pick opponents that match up well with them, and they can play them in settings that work well for them. The bigger and more successful a school is, the more effectively they can tailor their non-conference schedule to their own needs. Once conference play starts, though, they stuck playing who they are scheduled to play. Conference teams are more likely of closer to equal ability, and chances are better that they are an approximate match in approach to play and talent level. In short smart college basketball handicappers know that if a team has done very well against even a strong non-conference schedule is far from guaranteed to do well when they transition to conference play.