COVID-19 continues to cause sweeping interruptions to the college basketball season. Conferences have started to change their policies and procedures about forfeits and now the CDC has lowered its recommended isolation period for the illness to five days. That should provide some hope for teams across the country, but we are nowhere near done with the college hoops hiccups.
A lot of teams have been on holiday breaks. We’ve had very few games, and about half of the ones that were supposed to be played over the last week have been postponed or outright canceled. I wrote last week about COVID pauses and about looking to take advantage of rusty teams against those that have been playing, but it seems as though we won’t find too many of those situations now.
Still, most of what I wrote about last week still applies, in terms of fading the COVID pause and also looking at Missouri State and Wright State as teams to back and La Salle and Middle Tennessee as teams to fade.
With conference play set to begin at the start of the new year for most teams, let’s look at 10 outliers in terms of strength of schedule that have not yet played a conference game. These are teams you’ll want to take a long look at before betting on or against as they settle into league action. They’ll end up playing teams that are much better or much worse than their average opponents based on the relative strength of the conference.
For brevity’s sake, I’ll leave out the really small conference teams, like those from the SWAC, Southland, Atlantic Sun and WAC. Those programs play a lot of paycheck games, and many of them face a gauntlet nonconference schedule.
Instead, consider the mid-majors, notable low majors and the teams that have played tough schedules that in no way represent the types of teams they’ll face in conference play.
Note: Bart Torvik’s strength-of-schedule numbers do not include games against lower-division opponents. (ranks as of Monday night)
UT-Arlington (Conference USA). Ken Pomeroy SOS rank: 10; Bart Torvik: 45
UC Irvine (Big West). KenPom: 12; Torvik: 53
Elon (Colonial). KenPom: 15; Torvik: 58
Long Beach State (Big West). KenPom: 20; Torvik: 26
Hofstra (Colonial). KenPom: 22; Torvik: 51
By conference rankings, Conference USA is 13th, while the CAA is 14th and the Big West is 21st, according to Torvik. You’ll want to look for situations like that, where teams have already played nonconference foes far superior to what they’ll see in league play and then check to see how they performed in those games.
Texas (Big 12). KenPom: 354; Torvik: 247
UTSA (Conference USA). KenPom: 352; Torvik: 257
Air Force (Mountain West). KenPom: 350; Torvik: 339
Quinnipiac (MAAC). KenPom: 349; Torvik: 338
Texas Tech (Big 12). KenPom: 348; Torvik: 275
Iowa State is another Big 12 team that has played a remarkably weak schedule to this point. Try to isolate these teams as teams to fade or follow as conference play begins. If they’ve been dominant against weak opponents and played up to expectations, that’s one thing. If they’ve struggled, or even lost some games, that’s an altogether different projection.
TEAMS TO BACK
VCU: The Rams have been a tale of two teams depending on which end of the floor the ball is on. VCU is tops in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency per Torvik and third per KenPom. Unfortunately, the Rams are 331st in adjusted offensive efficiency per Torvik and 270th per KenPom.
VCU has scored at least one point per possession just once in 11 games. The team is shooting just 64 percent at the free-throw line and 29.3 percent from 3-point range, which ranks just outside the bottom 50 nationally. Opponents, though, are shooting only 23.8 percent on 3-pointers.
VCU’s offense should improve. The defense may not be this good, but we know that has been the calling card in the Commonwealth, even dating to the Shaka Smart days. The Rams have a high assist rate on made shots but also have an unsustainably high turnover percentage on offense of almost 24 percent. I’d expect a well-coached, talented team to figure it out sooner than later.
Furman: The Paladins are off to a blistering start offensively but have struggled quite a bit on the defensive end of the floor. The Southern Conference remains a good offensive conference and a bad defensive conference. As Furman gets into league action, the offense should more than carry the defense, which could improve.
Furman’s SOS is 112th by Torvik and 135th by KenPom. Chattanooga and Wofford are the only teams ranked higher than an average Furman opponent this season. The Paladins should be able to keep cashing in 3-point attempts at a high rate against some bad defensive opponents, and that will cover up their defensive issues in the paint. The SoCon is full of jump-shooting teams, and it is reasonable to assume that no team in the conference will be as good at it as Furman.
TEAMS TO FADE
South Florida: The Bulls are one of the slowest teams in Division I college basketball and one of the most inefficient offensive teams. Playing good defense in low-possession games is all well and good, but not being able to cash in offensively makes it hard to cover spreads. USF is 348th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 351st in effective field-goal percentage per Torvik. KenPom lists USF 337th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
The problem is that most teams in the AAC play good defense and are much more skilled offensively. It is a conference that generally plays at a slow tempo. It’s sort of an “Anything you can do, I can do better” sort of situation for USF as league play gets going, and I don’t think it will work out well for the Bulls.
UMass: Living and dying by the 3 can be a tough way to go in college basketball. UMass is taking a 3-point shot more than 46 percent of the time and has made 39.9 percent of those attempts. However, opponents are also shooting 37.4 percent from 3 and 53.8 percent from 2. This is a really bad defensive team shooting a much higher percentage than expected from deep.
While it isn’t the same roster as last season, the Minutemen shot 32.9 percent in 2020-21 over 31 games. Transfers Rich Kelly and CJ Kelly are both outperforming their career numbers by a decent amount. Any drop-off in the shooting numbers for UMass would spell trouble because of how the defense has performed to this point and A-10 opponents may present a problem.