College Basketball Pointspread Juggernauts

College Basketball Pointspread Juggernauts

College Basketball Pointspread Juggernauts
By Teddy Covers
Sportsmemo.com

The Super Bowl is in the rear view mirror after Sunday’s huge Seattle blowout, 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, but I’ve yet to write a true college basketball overview column so far this season. It’s time!

I’m going take a look at the four very best regular board pointspread teams in the country in this week’s column.  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. And the very best pointspread teams tend to be under-the-radar type squads, like the single best ATS team in college hoops thusfar in the 2013-14 campaign.

Cleveland State has a decent record, sitting in a second place tie in the Horizon League standings with a 6-3 mark in conference; 15-9 SU overall. If the NCAA tournament started today, Gary Waters’ Vikings wouldn’t even sniff an at-large bid – they’ll need to win the league tournament to go dancing next month. And yet Cleveland State leads the nation with 16 pointspread covers in 21 lined games.

The Vikings showed us early that they were capable of exceeding expectations, in large part thanks to their defensive effort. They faced Kentucky at Rupp Arena in Lexington in November. Cleveland State shot less than 36 percent from the floor. They took 20 fewer free throws than the Wildcats did and were outrebounded by seven boards. Yet as 24 point underdogs, they led at the half and hung tough for the full 40 minutes, losing by only seven.

Basically, Cleveland State hasn’t stopped covering since. They’ve also managed to stay under the radar; retaining their market value. The Vikings don’t get many national TV opportunities, so bettors don’t see them regularly. And despite consistently cashing winning bets, they haven’t gone on any extended ATS winning streaks to attract market attention, with their longest ATS winning streak only four games long.

There are four stats that stand out for Cleveland State. First they don’t turn the ball over excessively, getting steady play at the point from returning starter Charlie Lee, who led the Horizon League in assists last year, as well as from Penn State transfer Trey Lewis. They’ve been strong defensively, particularly from beyond the arc. The Vikings clean up the glass, averaging a +5 rebounding margin.

The fourth stat is three -oint shooting. Cleveland State is ranked #11 in the country, hitting better than 40 percent of their tries from beyond the arc. Put it all together and suddenly it’s not so hard to understand why a team that has played to their expected form (the Vikings were projected to be looking up at Green Bay in the Horizon League standings, which they are) have developed into pointspread juggernauts. And as we’ll see, their statistical recipe for ATS success is not unique when we look at other top money earners.

When it comes to a straight percentage of pointspreads covered this year, Utah stands at the top of the list even after their four point loss in OT as two point underdogs at Colorado last Saturday. The Utes are only 3-6 SU in PAC-12 play. Like Cleveland State, that’s right where they were supposed to be – only USC and Washington State were projected to finish below the Utes this year, and those are the only two teams currently beneath them in the standings.

Yet the Utes have been a pointspread machine, cashing at an 80 percent clip for the full season. Again, the signs were there early. Despite facing a litany of weak foes, the Utes vastly exceeded expectations in both non-conference step-up games. They lost by only two at Boise as double digit underdogs, then beat up BYU by 17, also as an underdog. The trend towards covering as a dog is still very much in play – their only non-cover all year when catching points came in that aforementioned OT loss to Colorado.

What do the stats tell us? For one, they tell us that Utah takes good shots and makes those shots at a high percentage. Among major conference teams, only Gonzaga and Kansas have shot better than Utah’s 50 percent clip this year. They rank #12 nationally in free throw shooting percentage; covering more than once due to their ability to hit shots at the charity stripe in the final minute of the game.

Like Cleveland State, the Utes defensive stat that really stands out is their three point shooting percentage allowed, ranked in the Top 20 nationally. Like Cleveland State, Utah has a strong positive rebounding margin of nearly eight boards per game. And like Cleveland State, Utah has a pair of steady hands manning the point, with both JUCO-transfer Delon Wright and last year’s returning starter Brandon Taylor avoiding the ATS killing plague of ‘turnovers in bunches.’

It’s not just under-the-radar teams at the top of the ATS standings. In fact, the next team on the list – Wichita State – has both been nationally ranked and reasonably hyped all year. Two years ago, the Shockers won the NIT. Last year, they reached the Final Four in the Big Dance. And despite modest personnel losses, Wichita State was lumped with mid-major juggernauts Gonzaga and VCU in the preseason rankings (#16) and they’ve moved steadily up ever since.

When a team opens the season 23-0, they’re supposed to cover pointspreads. But when a well-hyped mid-major coming off a Final Four campaign covers spreads for three months at a 75 percent clip; it’s noteworthy. The statistical profile? Excellent free throw shooting, strong rebounding and stifling defense from both inside and outside the arc, quite comparable to what we’ve seen from fellow ATS juggernauts Cleveland State and Utah. It is worth noting, however, that Wichita St went 0-2 ATS last week, failing to cover a pair of inflated double digit pointspreads; an indicator that the market may have finally caught up with them.

The last team that I am going to profile here is a squad that was obviously way better than projections from Day 1 for anyone watching – the Villanova Wildcats. ‘Nova was projected to be a middling team in the new Big East; a notch or two behind Creighton, Georgetown and Marquette.

The Wildcats first made some real noise in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving, pulling upsets over Kansas and Iowa on back-to-back nights. But the betting markets didn’t really appreciate what those two wins said about Jay Wright’s squad; a 20 win team last year that got bounced from the Big Dance in their opener. ‘Nova won their next four all by 19 points or more, just blowing teams out in December. Following an ugly loss at Syracuse – a game that they led by 18 early, but got outscored 71-37 the rest of the way – ‘Nova was again disrespected by the betting markets. The result? Six pointspread covers in their last eight games, a team that hasn’t stopped cashing winning bets, despite their lofty national ranking and ample TV time.

Villanova’s statistical profile has many commonalities with the other three teams on this list. The Wildcats make free throws. They dominate the glass. They play defense, holding foes to 40 percent shooting for the season. And they don’t commit turnovers in bunches.

These four teams are the top four regular board ATS squads this season. Their statistical profile is eerily similar. But their respective situations are completely different. Cleveland State is a national afterthought; a solid but unspectacular mid-major that has simply been priced wrong from the get-go. Utah is a relatively weak squad that hasn’t been quite as bad as they were thought to be. Wichita State was expected to be elite and they’ve been elite, but the markets under-reacted to their extraordinary success. And Villanova has been elite from Day 1, but the markets took a very long time to reflect their abilities.

Next week? The pointspread bottom feeders!

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