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How to Find Soft Spots in College Basketball Over/Unders

Sascha Paruk

by Sascha Paruk in College Basketball

Nov 24, 2020 · 9:51 PM PST

Fairfield Stags guard Calvin Whipple
The Fairfield Stags played considerably slower in 2019-20 under first-year head coach Jay Young. (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire)
  • Betting unders early in the 2019-20 college basketball season worked out extremely well for some bettors
  • Teams that played at a slower tempo compared to the year before were highly unlikely to go over the game total
  • What does that mean for the 2020-21 season?

During the first few weeks of the 2019-20 college basketball season, some bettors caught onto a trend that paid off handsomely: several teams were staying under the total – well under – in almost all of their games.

For the most part, the teams shared one crucial trait. They were playing at a slower tempo than the year before. (The biggest anomaly was Virginia, which had its own explanation.)

The table below shows some of the best under teams at the start of the 2019-20 season. The “Early-season O/U Record” column starts from game one of the season for all teams listed.

Best Under Bets Early in 2019-20

Team Early-Season O/U Record Average O/U Margin 2019-20 Tempo 2018-19 Tempo Coaching Change?
Virginia 1-6 -21.0 PPG 59.4 (353rd) 59.4 (353rd) No
Fairfield 1-6 -5.7 PPG 63.2 (346th) 67.8 (160th) Yes
UC Riverside 1-6 -6.6 PPG 63.2 (347th) 62.3 (340th) No
Butler 1-5 -8.0 PPG 63.7 (341st) 66.0 (263rd) No
Liberty 1-4 -10.0 PPG 62.3 (349th) 61.5 (352nd) No
Mount St. Mary’s 2-5 -8.14 PPG 63.2 (345th) 67.1 (202nd) No
Stetson 2-4-1 -9.5 PPG 68.8 (113th) 68.8 (202nd) Yes

Five of the seven teams on the list took a significant dive in tempo compared to the year before.

A slower tempo leads to fewer possessions in the game, and fewer possessions leads to fewer points. Oddsmakers adjust over/unders for tempo and efficiency – and the adjustments are based on existing data.

Predictive analytics sites like KenPom and Torvik are highly influential with sportsbooks, and it’s rare to find an opening O/U that is more than a couple points off of their predictions. But heading into a new season, those predictions are based largely on the data from the prior season (adjusted somewhat for personnel changes).

Their early-season predictions don’t appear to take factor in stylistic and coaching changes – at least, not quickly enough – and that leads to soft spots in the NCAAM game totals in the first couple weeks.

Fairfield Was an Under Machine

The biggest drop in tempo in 2019-20 came from the Fairfield Stags, who would go onto post a 7-25 O/U record for the year, by far the best under record in the DI. They stayed under in 78.1% of their games, while the second-best under team (Mercer) only stayed under in 26.7% (8-22).

Fairfield brought in a new coach (Jay Young) last season, and he implemented a slower, more-defensive style of play compared to his predecessor (Sydney Johnson).

Only one other team on the list (Stetson) changed coaches in the 2019 offseason, so finding teams that are going to play at a slower tempo in the coming year shouldn’t be limited to those with new hires, but that is certainly a good place to start.

ESPN has an exhaustive list of the coaching changes for 2020-21.

What Was the Deal with UVA?

Interestingly, Virginia was a fantastic under bet early in the year even though they played at the exact same tempo as the year before.

The 2019-20 team lost its three leading scorers to the NBA and Tony Bennett is not exactly John Calipari on the recruiting trail. He couldn’t replace Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and De’Andre Hunter with five-star recruits.

The UVA offense – though it  improved as the year wore on – was a dumpster fire early on, while its defense was as stifling as ever. Case in point: their season-opening 48-34 win over Syracuse.

How to Apply This to 2020-21

The approach I would advise is to monitor the first two games of the year very closely in terms of tempo. Look at the bottom of the tempo list on KenPom a week into the season and then compare it to 2019-20. If any of the teams in the bottom 25 or so were playing at a significantly faster pace the year before, they could be ripe to hit a few more unders before sportsbooks make the necessary adjustments.

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