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Basketball Handicapping Techniques

Basketball handicapping

It is imperative for the handicapper to understand that teams with solid fundamentals are more likely to cover the spread than teams with poor fundamentals. Fundamental basketball consists of taking only good shots on certain parts of the floor, hanging onto the basketball, making your free throws, playing solid defense, and giving 40 minutes of effort on both ends of the court.

Successful basketball teams enhance their success by limiting their mistakes and creating opponent mistakes. Unlike football, basketball is a sport with many mistakes. If a team turns the ball over, misses free throws, commits many personal fouls and gives up cheap buckets it will lead to many opponent scores. Easy scores for the opponent, not only make it difficult for a team to win the game, but cover the spread.

Fundamental Axioms I always love it when someone says a coach was fired because they did not cover the spread often enough. I guess it never occurred to the person that teams who win games cover spreads. In the NFL, the straight up winner of a game covers the spread roughly 83 percent of the time.

I ran past data through a computer program for a single season of college basketball. Like the NFL, college basketball holds to the same type of logic about covering pointspreads. In the 1997-1998 college basketball season from the opening tip to the conference tournaments there was a large sample of 1,722 games, the team that won the game covered the spread almost 74% of the time. 1,722 games, 1,271 covers, 73.81 % of the teams that won the game straight up covered the spread. Now it sounds easy, take every big favorite because they are going to win the game. Not so fast, just because a team is favored does not mean they will cover the pointspread or are the better team.

Not all favorites are the better team on that given day. The primary reason is the team that plays with the greater focus, not greater talent, will win and cover games even more than 74% of the time. Emotion, not talent, is the primary reason why teams cover the spread. Teams with more talent and less intensity than their opponent will play down to their opponent’s level.

In the vast majority of those cases the team with less intensity still has to overcome the burden of being the favorite. Thus they will lose versus the pointspread and straight up a large percentage of the time. If the intensity of the superior team is equal to or greater than the opponent they will win and cover the spread a large percentage of the time. These motivated favorites can be trusted to lay numbers with if other things are in line, mainly current form.

That is not to say that talent and matchups do not play a role in the handicapping process. Matchups do play a role. The raw talent of a team is dependent on the experience, skills and athleticism a team possesses. Teams with greater levels of experience tend to be more efficient on the basketball court, making less mistakes and more positive plays. Some players have the ability to handle, distribute and shoot the basketball better than other players.

Teams like Duke and North Carolina get the players with the best skill levels. The players with the highest skill levels like Kobe Bryant of the Los Angles Lakers do not even play college basketball anymore, going straight from high school to the NBA. The athleticism of a team limits its potential upside.

A simple fact of life is those who run faster and jump higher will create more scoring opportunities with rebounds and steals when facing slower opponents. The bottom line is athletes make more plays than non-athletes. In basketball there are many more opportunities to make plays than any other sport.

Handicapping emotion has become the primary edge versus the oddsmaker.
The following areas are emotional advantages that I look for in conference play:

Wearing the Top 25 Target Jersey
Coaches are always looking for tools to motivate their team. Coaches use Top 25 rankings as a tool to motivate players for the upcoming opponent. When a team is ranked in the Top 25 opponents are always looking to play hard versus the ranked team. Being ranked in the Top 25 is like wearing an invisible target jersey. Everyone is looking to knock you off when a Top 25 team goes on the road.

Thus one needs to be very aware of who is in the Top 25 and where they are playing. There are two Top 25 polls, (AP & ESPN/USA Today), that basically are identical. Choose one or the other and write down the Top 25 teams that are playing today in your schedule. Thus one can be aware of teams with emotional edges playing against Top 25 teams. Look for opportunities to play against these teams when they are on the road versus unranked or lower ranked Top 25 opponents.

The Pointspread and Emotion Relationship
Coaches love to use the pointspread to motivate their players. Almost every coach and most players will look in the paper to get the accurate pointspread to see who is favored and by how much. If a team is an underdog the coach will let his players know. “Las Vegas says we should lose by 8 at home…” I love the myths the coaches create that someone in Las Vegas thinks your team is bad and consequently decided to slap them around by making them the underdog. The oddsmakers only put the odds up, coaches create the us against the world mentality.

Upsets create letdowns going into the next game for teams that achieve the upset. It is important to track teams that won a game they did not expect to win. Thus one knows which teams are subject to being flat for their next game. The two biggest types of upsets are Rival Upsets and Top 25 Upsets.

Rival Upsets
Upsets over a rival create large flat spots for teams that got the upset. Rivalry games, in-state or regional, bring out the highest levels of emotion for both teams. The underdog is not expected to win, thus the underdog will play very hard in the majority of cases. As stated before, coaches know the pointspread. Coaches will use the pointspread to inspire the underdog. A high level of emotion expended in a rivalry game that leads to an upset will put the upsetting team in a flat spot. It is there one can look to bet against the team that achieved the upset in the next game.

Top 25 Upsets
Unranked or lower ranked Top 25 teams that beat higher ranked teams in a Top 25 poll typically experience a letdown in the next game. Thus one can look to bet against them. The letdown occurs because an upset of this magnitude creates a sense of accomplishment. The media and coaches are telling the players what a great effort it took to beat that Top 25 team. Now it is time to letdown in intensity, to relax and rest on ones laurels.

Conference Home Court Thief
Typically most teams in conferences play two games vs. each other during the regular season, home and away. In some of the larger conferences some teams will play only once. If a conference team steals a game away on the opponent’s home court, it sets up a situation of overconfidence when the home court thief returns to play the same opponent on the thief home floor.

The mentality of the young athlete is one of this attitude: “We won a game on their home floor so now we should win since we are playing at home.” The players assume they will win just because they have beaten the team already in a more difficult situation. The opponent has a different view of the game. The opponent’s view is one of getting that lost game back if possible.

The key question is do the players believe they can beat the opponent? A team like Vanderbilt will rarely be able to think they can beat Kentucky on their home floor. An opponent cannot be outgunned or hapless. To take advantage of this psychological edge one must track conference games and be prepare to play teams that have a competitive opportunity to get a game back they lost on their home floor.

The use of computers has made handicapping an art once again. Power ratings are a useful tool. The key word is tool. They are not the final solution they once were years ago. Good luck in using matchups and the emotional edges identified to further your handicapping.


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