In the zoo that is collegiate amateur sports, college basketball is a different kind of animal. Baseball and football move along in an orderly fashion, with early-season non-conference matchups followed by a regular-season of conference opponents, ending in a conference championship. College basketball has tournaments beginning in the first week of the regular season.
If you’re betting on college basketball, you need to know that the lines for early-season college basketball tournament games are the softest you’ll see all year.
This post attempts to explain why oddsmakers aren’t great at setting lines in regular-season tourneys, then suggests some ways you can take advantage of this feature of the market to improve your sports betting results.
Here’s Why Early-Season College Basketball Tournaments are Tough to Handicap
For oddsmakers, their big strength in the basketball market is the huge amount of history between most teams that suit up and compete in the regular season. The line is set in such a way as to take advantage of public money, which tends to back the more popular side regardless of context.
Early-season tournaments throw together lots of teams with limited competitive history, often in mismatched situations, early in the year, well before a college basketball line reflects anything close to reality. These tournament events feature invitation-only teams from conferences all over the country playing against schools they would normally never come across.
In the case of the Shriners Children’s Classic in Charleston, South Carolina, the tournament takes place before anyone has had a real chance to see the teams in action. The 2021 iteration of the Charleston Classic kicked off on November 18th, making it just the third or fourth game the participating teams had played.
As for the oddball matchups in these events, this year’s Charleston Classic saw eventual champion St. Bonaventure of the Atlantic 10 conference face off against Boise State from the Mountain West, Clemson of the ACC, and Marquette of the Big East, all in about 70 hours.
With very little to go on in terms of competitive history or even on-court performance, it’s no wonder oddsmakers are generally flummoxed by these early-season events.
How to Bet Successfully on Early-Season NCAAB Tournaments
The tips below will help you take advantage of the fact that bookmakers just aren’t great at setting early-season conference tournament lines.
Understand the Impact of Experience on Nonconference Play
Youth can sometimes win games in March, but experience and age win early-season non-conference games, especially in a tournament format.
Teams that have played together before – particularly if they’ve played a specific event together in the past year or two – perform better than young teams with lots of skilled but inexperienced players.
Case in point – St. Bonaventure won the 2021 edition of the Charleston Classic tournament after returning all five starters from their conference championship year, beating a Boise State squad with just two returning starters and one starting true freshman.
When I see a team returning three or more starters, my ears perk up. If the line is suitably bad, it’s probably a bet I’ll back.
It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. I liked USC in the Wooden Legacy tournament in 2021 thanks to their big returning three and the addition of Memphis’ Boogie Ellis. Unfortunately, the line already reflected USC’s increased chances of winning it all, likely because of the high-profile nature of Ellis transfer and the market’s familiarity with USC’s big three.
Understand the Impact of Coaching in Nonconference Play
I’d go so far as to say that a high-quality coach or coaching staff makes the biggest impact during early-season nonconference tournament play.
Teams with a powerhouse coaching staff tend to act in all the ways you’d expect – they come out strong, they rally when they get behind, they keep scores close, and they overperform after losses. All of these features are muted in conference play, when opposing coaches and players know the game plan and how to shut down a team’s biggest weapons. That muting effect is off the table in an early-season tourney.
Backing the powerhouse coach led me to back Dayton and Anthony Grant all the way in the 2021 ESPN Events Invitational. Look at his matchups round by round – he beat Jim Larrañaga and Casey Alexander, two coaches who can’t hold a candle to him. Okay, so his defeat of Bill Self, who’s only lost like two or three games in his career, and that was a fluke. But, for the most part, backing the confident and powerful coach goes a long way in those early-season tournament events.
I’ll back a team with an experienced and winning coach against a better team with a lackluster coach during early-season tournaments – something I would never do during conference or even March Madness play.
Back the Gimmick
I’ve come up with my own version of “fade the public” for early season tourney play in college basketball – it’s called “back the gimmick.”
College basketball doesn’t reward gimmicky teams over the long haul. I’m talking about teams that go ultra-young, starting five freshmen or starting five guys under 20 years old. I’m also talking about teams that go super-big or super-small, hoping to gain some size advantage across the board.
These teams can get to the tournament, and they can win games in the tournament, but they generally can’t win it all.
During the early season, before opponents of any stripe have even started to figure out a team’s gimmick, it can be quite successful.
Here’s an example from a recent season – the 2021 New Mexico State Aggies. Their gimmick was “shooting tons of 3-pointers,” and early in the season, it was fairly effective. They were invited to the 2021 Myrtle Beach Invitational, where they shot nearly 50% three-pointers and took third place in a tournament where they were expected to bomb.
You wouldn’t have been surprised by that third-place finish if you’d backed the gimmick.
Look for High-Value Transfers
This works for the same reasons as backing the gimmick – when teams get big-name transfers, those early-season tournament events are tough for oddsmakers to handicap. We don’t know how the new lineup is working as a unit, and we know even less about how these transfer players match up against non-conference opponents.
Iowa State won the 2021 NIT Season Tip-Off, beating 25th-ranked Xavier by 12 points before dismantling 9th-ranked Memphis by nearly 20. Bettors who were aware of the arrival of former Minnesota Guard Gabe Kalscheur weren’t at all surprised. If you were watching for the impact of high-value transfers, you’d have had Iowa St. finishing in at least the top three.
Get Familiar with High School Recruits
High-impact true freshmen are a big reason for the odd success of programs in early-season non-conference tournaments. Again, this is because most of these players are total unknowns to the public, and even if the oddsmakers are aware of the potential impact of a superstar recruit, it’s unlikely that this impact will be priced into the market in November or even December.
Tyrese Hunter is an example of a player that was not at all priced into the market for the 2021 early season tournament schedule. His performances were a big part of why Iowa State shocked the betting world and won the NIT Season Tip-Off. The only way you could’ve known about this guy was if you were paying attention to high school basketball – he was consistently in the running for Mr. Basketball Wisconsin and was scouted second only to Milwaukee’s Patrick Baldwin, Jr.
I like to follow top guys that commit to mid-level or even small schools, where their impact will be more immediately felt. In the case of Hunter, his decision to sign with Iowa State fit a roster need right away, meaning his impact would be immediate. In the case of the NIT Season Tip-Off, there was no way for the line to incorporate his impact, and bettors who knew about him ahead of time made a few days of tidy profits.
In November and December, the betting public is way more focused on NFL and college football. It stands to reason that the market-making books and oddsmakers are likewise a bit distracted by the pigskin to set their best lines on early-season college basketball games. Early-season tournaments complicate this even further by tossing teams together randomly in play formats that prize things other than pure statistical performances.
You can make money on this general weakness across the entire industry by doing all of the usual things to improve your sports betting success – do lots of homework before the season starts to set your own lines for early-season tourneys, become an expert in a specific slice of the league, and focus your bets on situations where you’ve worked out an advantage.