How to best bet college basketball's NCAA bubble teams
The word “bubble” is going to start popping in your ear more and more over the next two weeks. For college basketball fans, the bubble means a team is on the cusp of the NCAA tournament – where a big win or bad loss can make the difference come Selection Sunday.
For basketball bettors, however, bubble teams mean value – either betting on or against them. Programs with uncertain futures this March can provide some extra pop for your college hoops wagers, playing with added motivation to get off the bubble. Or they can be fade bait, crumbling under the weight of the bubble until their tournament hopes burst with a season-ending slump.
With only a handful of games left for these schools to paint their postseason picture, we break down the best ways to handicap and wager bubble teams in the home stretch of the conference schedule:
Size up the sked
There are more than 20 squads currently tagged as “bubble teams” when scouring the mainstream media polls and countless more that could eek their way into one of the 68 NCAA spots available. The first step in finding the value with the bubble is to break down which teams actually have the best shots at impressing the selection committee in the final two weeks.
Major conferences usually offer teams one or two more games versus ranked rivals, the best way for them to boost their NCAA resume. This is automatic hope for these schools, who know that if they take care of those big-name opponents, they have a chance to go dancing.
One team currently on the tourney fence is Texas, which sits 6-8 in Big 12 play. The Longhorns haven’t scored many wins against notable names and are just 1-10 against programs ranked in the Top 50 in RPI. However, the Horns have three of their four remaining Big 12 games against ranked opponents – WVU, Kansas and Baylor – with plenty of opportunities to get off the bubble. That could keep Rick Barnes' kids competitive in each of those games.
On the other hand, a program like Cincinnati has already played its conference heavyweights in the AAC and is left with an unimpressive schedule featuring Central Florida, Tulane, Tulsa, and Memphis. Even if the Bearcats win out in those four games, they may not have enough clout to avoid their bubble bursting – outside of an impressive conference tournament. If Cincinnati drops one of those games, it could lose focus knowing an at-large bid to the Big Dance isn’t in the cards.
Sizing up spot bets – no matter the sport – is a keen handicapping process. And this approach to wagering holds even more value when it comes to bubble teams down the stretch.
A team needing a notable win to puff up its March Madness chances can often times get caught looking past an unranked opponent on the weekday and ahead to their ranked foe on the weekend. The classic lookahead spot offers value in going against the bubble team in the game before a big season-defining showdown.
This week, Miami can tighten its hold on a spot in the NCAA field with a win at North Carolina Saturday. But before the Hurricanes head to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels, they host Florida State in Coral Gables Wednesday night. The Seminoles aren’t earning an at-large bid – and know it – but would love to spoil their ACC rivals' tourney chances.
Bubble teams can also be very susceptible to the letdown spot in their pursuit of a postseason place. Teams coming off a matchup with a ranked opponent – win or lose – run the risk of coming down off that high and playing flat in their next outing. Bubble teams losing to a ranked foe feel like their season is shot and teams coming off a win against a big-name opponent can be a false sense of accomplishment.
Some potential letdown spots this week include Texas A&M, facing ranked Arkansas Tuesday then hosting Auburn Saturday, and North Carolina State at ranked North Carolina Tuesday and then at Boston College Saturday.
Not that teams need much extra motivation when resting firm on the bubble in the closing games of the schedule, but having a healthy dose of hometown love never hurts.
Unlike in pro basketball, where home and away splits are a slight difference in the stats, college basketball teams can be completely different squads when taking their home court compared to playing in the role of visitor. And, more often than not, teams on the NCAA bubble are the ones who display that disparity in venue.
UCLA has been one of the more two-faced teams in the country when it comes to performance at home and away. The Bruins are just 2-8 SU and 4-6 ATS on the road, averaging just 60.3 points per game away from home. But at home in Pauley Pavilion, UCLA is a contender with a 13-1 SU and 10-4 ATS mark, scoring 80.5 points an outing – more than 20 points more than on the road. The Bruins can thank the Pac-12 schedule makers for lining up three straight home dates to close conference play, hosting Washington, Washington State and Southern Cal.
UCLA’s conference rival Oregon, another Pac-12 bubble team, has the exact opposite of that friendly slate and closes out the season with three straight road games while trying to impress the selection committee. The Ducks, who have only played six true road games (2-4 SU and ATS) on the year, visit Cal, Stanford and Oregon State with the window closing on their March Madness plans.
February is when a lot of teams hit the wall. Programs depending on freshmen to carry the team into the postseason could be playing with fire as first-year players aren’t used to the long grind of the college season, coupled with travel and school work.
That’s not to say freshmen won’t step up – that class is now always the most talented crop of players in the country (thanks to the NBA’s one-year rule) and AAU play keeps high school kids busy all year round. However, big-game experience and knowing what it takes to pull out wins against the odds is something that only comes from veteran programs.
Battling the bubble before is also something basketball bettors should consider. Were this year’s bubble teams in the same position in 2014, and how did they respond? A rotten taste from past Selection Sundays can often be motivation to not get left out again.
Purdue boasts one of the youngest teams in the country with a roster rich in freshmen and sophomores. The Boilermakers are among the most notable bubble teams in the mix right now, having won three straight and eight of their last 10 to inject themselves into the bracket conversion. But, with two freshmen in the starting lineup and two more logging steady minutes off the bench, Purdue could be asking a lot of these first-year talents in the final games of the year. The Boilermakers have a tough task with road games at ranked Ohio State and then at Michigan State (another Big Ten bubble team), then home to Illinois (yet another bubble team looking to get in).
As for a team battling the bubble for a second straight year, Boise State returned six seniors and three juniors from a program that burst its bubble with a 1-3 finish to MWC play last March. That tumble was especially heart breaking with the final two losses coming in overtime. The Broncos fought hard in the 2014 conference tournament too (3-0 ATS), eventually falling to Mountain West champ New Mexico by three points in the semifinals. But it was much too late to score any brownie points with the selection committee. Boise State has three of its final four games away from home, but has the experience and motivation not to let that opportunity slip away again.
Here are some notable bubble teams to watch the next two weeks: Pittsburgh, Miami, UCLA, Stanford, Colorado State, Dayton, Georgia, Tulsa, Oregon, Illinois, Purdue, Temple, Texas, Texas A&M, Boise State, NC State, Davidson, LSU, Cincinnati, BYU
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