Finding mid-majors to take to the bank

(To see the chart accompanying this report, subscribe to Point Spread Weekly)

The college basketball season is just a couple of weeks old, so it’s a good time to start plotting for the rest of the season, based on early returns. I like to canvass the mid-major conferences to find potential money makers. There’s usually a handful of non-power conference teams that you can ride with all season. 

Just look at last season, when teams such as Dayton, East Tennessee State and San Diego State came through for bettors time after time. Those three teams combined to produce + 48.25 units of moneyline profit and an ATS mark of 54-37-2. The return on investment on that moneyline wagering was a staggering 51.9% on those teams.

Obviously had any reasonable bettors known the type of seasons those teams were going to produce, they would have backed them consistently, right? Well, some people did know, or at least they had an inkling that these were programs ready to excel in 2019-20. How? Well, those three and a few others had some shared characteristics of past mid-major teams that delivered great returns at the betting window.

Let’s look at those shared characteristics and use them to project a list of 2020-21 teams that we can potentially ride all the way through March.

My standards for mid-major betting “greatness” are simple: Non-power-conference teams had to win 30-plus games and produce more than 10 units of moneyline profit for bettors. There have been 26 such teams since 2000 to accomplish that. I extrapolated the finishes of the three qualifying teams from last season that would have met the criteria had the season not been shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here is a chart illustrating a detailed resume of those 26 teams:

As we dig through the chart closely, we find several key characteristics that these teams shared in their special seasons:

1)  About 70% of the teams didn’t lose in their first five games.

2)  About 80% of them had a point differential of + 13 or better in their first five games.

For 2020-21, there are 15 non-power conference teams that had yet to lose as of Monday and had a point differential in excess of + 13: 

ABILENE CHRISTIAN: 5-0 (+ 3.05 units), 4-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 18.8

DRAKE: 4-0 (+ 3.7 units), 3-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 22.8

FURMAN: 4-0 (+ 1 units), 2-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 31.3

GONZAGA: 3-0 (+ 2 units), 2-1 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 13.3

GRAND CANYON: 3-0 (+ 0 units), 2-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 28.7

HOUSTON: 4-0 (+ 3.35 units), 3-1 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 18.8

MARSHALL: 2-0 (+ 1 units), 1-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 15

MERCER: 5-0 (+ 6.85 units), 2-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 19

RICE: 4-0 (+ 2 units), 2-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 24

RICHMOND: 2-0 (+ 2.2 units), 1-1 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 15

SACRAMENTO STATE: 3-0 (+ 2 units), 2-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 27.3

SAINT LOUIS: 3-0 (+ 1 units), 3-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 31.3

SAN DIEGO STATE: 4-0 (+ 3.35 units), 2-1 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 20.3

SMU: 4-0 (+ 1 units), 3-1 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 24

UAB: 4-0 (+ 0 units), 4-0 ATS, Pt. Diff. + 30.3

3) Of the 26 teams, 20 returned at least three starters that season.

This disqualifier trims Gonzaga, Grand Canyon, Rice, Sacramento State and San Diego State off our list, narrowing our potential field to 10 teams. Teams like Gonzaga rarely make this list because any upset loss tends to drag their moneyline profit down for the season as they typically play as a heavy favorite.

4) Of the 26 teams, 20 won at least 20 games in the previous season.

Again, for this season, I had to extrapolate the shortened 2019-20 season, projecting that teams such as Drake (18) and SMU (19) would have joined Furman (22), Houston (23), Richmond (24) and Saint Louis (22) as qualifiers for this factor.

5) Of the 26 teams, 21 were at least .500 against the spread in the previous season.

With our list having been cut to six teams, this final qualifying characteristic eliminates Drake and SMU.

This leaves us with a group of four potential big-time money makers from the mid-major ranks for this season. Let’s take a look:

Furman: The Paladins bring back four starters from their 25-7 team of last season, and it’s coach Bob Richey’s fourth year at the helm. After Furman was upset in the quarterfinals of the Southern Conference tournament last March, it looks like a potentially ideal time for a motivated and experienced group to take the next step. Richey’s team is the conference favorite and boasts a nice veteran frontcourt, led by returning double-digit scores Noah Gurley and Clay Mounce. The Paladins also have gotten a huge early scoring burst from guard Mike Bothwell, who averaged 21.8 points per game in their 4-0 start. Having outscored its first four opponents by 31.3 points per game, Furman should be bet consistently this season.

Houston: After five straight 20-plus-win seasons and a 2019 Sweet 16 appearance after 33 wins, Houston probably isn’t an under-the-radar team with which you’ll strike it big. However, the Cougars should win a lot of games this season, and considering that they’ve already upset Texas Tech, they should be on your short list of teams that will be getting consistent betting attention. They check all the boxes on our list and boast star power in veteran guard Quentin Grimes and a big-stage coach in Kelvin Sampson. Expect Houston to make some noise in the postseason, too, and back the Cougars as moneyline dogs or short favorites any chance you get.

Richmond: The Spiders are a wildly popular pick to emulate the success Dayton achieved out of the Atlantic 10 last season. After entering the season in the Top 25, Richmond waltzed into Kentucky and pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the young season. On Monday, the Spiders knocked off upstart Wofford to move to 3-0. This is coach Chris Mooney’s 16th season in the program and almost sure to be his best team. They brought back all five starters, including top-level guard combo Blake Francis and Jacob Gilyard. However, through three games, forward Nathan Cayo led the team with better than 17 points per game. The next week presents some huge moneyline opportunities for Richmond with big games against Northern Iowa, at West Virginia and at Vanderbilt.

Saint Louis: If Richmond doesn’t become your team of choice out of the Atlantic 10, perhaps it will be Saint Louis. The Billikens are also off to a great start after bringing back all five starters from last season’s 22-win team. The nice thing about Saint Louis is it won’t be commanding as much early season attention. Unlike Richmond, the Billikens are unranked, so the pricing should prove much more attractive. Coach Travis Ford has played in and coached big-time college basketball, too, so dealing with pressure shouldn’t be an issue. Keep an eye on senior wing Javonte Perkins, who averaged 23 points per game in the first three outings. Don’t overlook the potential for a big upset win as this team heads to Minnesota on Dec. 20.

So far I’ve focused primarily on moneylines, as teams like these have proved better at winning games than covering point spreads, although they do fairly well in that regard too. However, oddsmakers do tend to catch up to them as the impressive won-lost marks start getting attention. The key to finding these teams is in not overpaying. Again, that is the reason you won’t find a team like Gonzaga on this list. As the No. 1 team in the country, you are paying No. 1 prices for backing the Bulldogs. And you’ll never get a chance to back them as underdogs.

Collectively, the group of 26 teams listed early posted an eye-opening 75-54 outright record as moneyline underdogs. Should any or all of the four teams above land on this list after this season, you can bet they will have pulled off their share of upset wins.

Don’t ignore the point spread, though, especially when these teams match up against the big boys from the power conferences. Against the leagues I consider “A” level (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), the 26 teams were 81-47-3 ATS, good for 63.3%. As underdogs in those games, they were 37-21-1 ATS (63.8%), and as road dogs, they were 13-3-1 ATS (81.3%). These are some golden nuggets to bank on when the opportunities arise. 

All four of these teams are quality, veteran-led squads. In a year of uncertainty, they could prove to be the mid-major money-makers we’re all looking for.

 

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