College Basketball's Best Against The Spread

College Basketball's Best Against The Spread

College Basketball's Best Against The Spread
By Teddy Covers
Sportsmemo.com

The Super Bowl is in the rear view mirror after Sunday’s wild Baltimore victory, which can only mean one thing – college hoops is on center stage for the next eight weeks.  I’ve been writing game previews for ESPN.com/Insider for the last month, but I’ve yet to write a true ‘college basketball overview’ column for any publication so far this season.  That streak ends here.

I’m going take a look at the very best pointspread ‘regular board’ teams in the country in this week’s column.  The list of ATS juggernauts is likely to surprise many people due to its diversity.  Elite level teams aren’t necessarily pointspread winners, and bottom feeders can cash ticket after ticket if the betting markets set numbers that allow them to hang within the number as big underdogs.  Look no further than the single best ATS team in the nation so far this season.

I’ll wager that less than a dozen people in the country knew that Fordham is the #1 ATS team in all of DI basketball this year; 14-5 against the number.  The Rams are 6-16 SU, just 2-5 in Atlantic-10 play.  This is nothing new or different – the Rams went a combined 17-40 SU in head coach Tom Pecora’s first two years on the job.  They’re a bad offensive team, hitting less than 41% from the floor for the season while missing more than one out of three free throw attempts.  They’re a mediocre defensive team both inside and outside the arc as well.

But the Rams have three factors working in their favor as an under-the-radar ATS juggernaut.  First and foremost, they are truly under-the-radar; favored only twice in their 19 lined games so far this season.  Secondly, they are getting solid point guard play from leading scorer and assist man Branden Frazier.  And third, they’re a solid rebounding team, even without senior forward Chris Gaston in the lineup; consistently winning the battle of the boards.

A team that consistently loses, but loses by small enough margins to cover pointspreads, can retain their ATS value indefinitely, as long as they don’t become demoralized from the steady stream of defeats.  There’s no reason to think that Fordham is going to change their stripes over the next month, still offering legitimate value for their backers down the stretch of the A-10 campaign.

Miami (FL) ranks No. 2 in the pointspread standings at 13-4 ATS.  You could make a case for Miami being No. 1, with a better ATS winning percentage than Fordham, but the Rams have more covers so I gave them the nod.  Miami is the antithesis of Fordham in many regards.  The Hurricanes are really good, still perfect in ACC play with an 8-0 SU mark to open their conference campaign; sitting at 17-3 overall.

Head coach Jim Larranaga – the same guy who coached George Mason into the Final Four a few years back – has the much more traditional recipe for a pointspread juggernaut.  The Canes have exceeded pointspread expectations because they are winning SU in every role—at home and on the road, as favorites and as underdogs.  This is a great team that’s been priced all season as a good team, a classic ATS success situation.

Miami lost their biggest star (and biggest player) when center Reggie Johnson got hurt, and the betting markets gave them too little credit during his month long absence.  And a single bad tournament performance in Honolulu over Christmas --smacked by Arizona and knocked off by Indiana State – helped them retain their value as ACC play began.

The betting markets have caught up with the ‘Canes – their last two wins (against NC State and Virginia Tech) both finished right around the number.  But there’s reason to think that Miami can continue to cover pointspreads at a solid percentage down the stretch, particularly in ‘step-up-in-class’ games against the likes of ACC favorites Duke, North Carolina and NC State, all of whom get much more national exposure than the long-dormant Miami program.

Like Fordham, San Francisco isn’t on anyone’s radar.  The Dons don’t play on TV.  They play in a conference where teams like Gonzaga, St Mary’s, Santa Clara and BYU are, and have been, the class of the WCC.   They regularly play to home crowds that barely number 1000 at War Memorial Gymnasium.  It’s not exactly a dominant home court – the Dons have lost five of their last seven there in SU fashion, including losses to the likes of Holy Cross and San Diego.
But Rex Walters’ squad is 13-5 ATS for the full season, including a 10-2 pointspread mark in their last dozen lined games.  They are an efficient offensive team, and a great three point shooting team, connecting on nearly 40% of their tries from downtown.  Each of their top six scorers has at least 21 made three pointers this year, and big man Cole Dickerson is a low post difference maker.

But it’s surely worth noting that six of the Dons 13 pointspread covers have come by a bucket or less, just squeaking in under the number.  That means San Francisco has been as lucky as they’ve been good, which indicates they’re no surefire candidate to close out the season on the red hot pointspread run they’ve been on for the last six weeks.

Florida was a dominant team last year, winning 26 games before losing a hard fought battle against Louisville in the Elite Eight round of the Big Dance.  Yet the betting markets didn’t respect the Gators enough coming into the 2012-13 campaign, as they annihilated some pretty good teams including Wisconsin, Marquette, Middle Tennessee State and Florida State over the first month of the season.  After a modest ATS cooldown, the Gators got back on the winning pointspread track with seven consecutive wins and covers to open SEC play.

Florida is a great team, and people knew that they’d be very good coming into the year.  So how have they managed to cover pointspreads at a Top 5 clip?  Two ways.  First, this is a VERY down year for the SEC.  The Gators have been double digit favorites in every single conference game thusfar, and they’ve still been dominating ATS.  And secondly, the Gators are positively stifling their foes on the defensive end of the court, routinely holding teams in the 40’s or 50’s.  They are one of the Top 5 teams in the country in defensive field goal percentage allowed, giving up an average of less than 18 made baskets per game.  Throw in a +8 rebounding margin and voila – even elite teams that everybody expected to be elite can still cover pointspreads in bunches.

A quick glance at some other ATS juggernauts among the ‘regular board’ DI teams shows that Florida is the exception, not the rule.  The only other nationally ranked Top 10 pointspread team is Creighton; a squad that leads the nation in shooting percentage, connecting at a 52% clip from the floor.  Doug McDermott’s exceptional long range shooting opens up the low post for high percentage looks from Gregory Echenique and point guard Grant Gibbs is truly a top notch distributor.

Most of the other top ATS teams are weak or middling teams like Troy.  The Trojans are 10-13 SU, in last place in the Sun Belt East.  But a team with a constantly adjusting rotation – ten different players have started at least two games this year – and a limited talent base hasn’t attracted much marketplace support in a conference primarily bet by wiseguys.  So Troy’s propensity for tight games – 16 of which have been decided by seven points or less including four in OT – has allowed them to hang within many inflated numbers.

Air Force, Wake Forest, Indiana State, Villanova and Utah are other teams that have cashed at a 65% clip or better through the first three months of the season.  Don’t expect a Big Dance bid from any of those middling squads without a significant winning SU hot streak between now and selection Sunday.  And should any of those squads suddenly rip off five or six consecutive victories, the markets aren’t likely to sleep on them for very long – from a pointspread perspective, that entire grouping is better off with a series of tight losses than a series of tight wins.

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