Horizon League provides another lesson in handicapping mid-majors

By Jeff Fogle  (VSiN.com) 

March 4, 2019 08:37 PM

Yesterday, we alerted you to this week’s start of college basketball conference tournament action. While all the major TV conferences still have one more week of regular season action left, several smaller leagues are about to tip off.

Tuesday, the Horizon League hits the hardwood. We know that most of you don’t follow this conference at all. That actually helps today! VSiN will provide a quick snapshot of how bettors can get up to speed in ANY conference before its tournament starts. You can apply today’s discussion to any event coming up in the next two weeks. 

Don’t be satisfied looking only at won-lost records in league play. Sharp bettors have found over the years that conference margin average has better predictive value. You won’t find superior “small sample” comparisons in any sport than college basketball conference margins because all the teams just played A LOT of games against each other. 

You’re probably aware that many sports bettors like studying what happened against “common opponents.”  The 10-team Horizon League just played an 18-game double-round robin schedule! Everyone played everyone else twice. Nobody benefitted by playing “a bunch of cupcakes” or was penalized by unfair travel. That’s as clean as you’re going to get. And, 18 games is a large enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions. 

Wright State and Northern Kentucky tied for first place with 13-5 records. Wright State earned the #1 seed in a tie-breaker. But conference margin averages suggest Northern Kentucky is the stronger side. 

  • Horizon League Conference Margins: Northern Kentucky 9.0, Wright State 6.9, Oakland 3.3, Illinois-Chicago 1.2, IUPUI 0.3, Green Bay -1.3, Youngstown State -2.2, Detroit Mercy -3.1, Milwaukee -6.3, Cleveland State -7.8. 

(Note that the Horizon excludes its two worst finishers to form an eight-team bracket, so Milwaukee and Cleveland State are done for the year.)

Against very similar challenges, Northern Kentucky’s average game was a 9-point win, while Wright State’s average game was almost a 7-point win. Reasonable to draw a conclusion that NOKE is about a bucket better than Wright on a neutral court. Up and down the ledger, margin averages can be used as virtual “power ratings” which express the “point difference” between any two teams.

Respected computer assessments confirm that N. Kentucky is probably the superior side. The NCAA’s NET ranking and Ken Pomeroy’s rankings at kenpom.com both have the Norse about 20 spots higher on the national ladder. 

Here’s a quick look at the Horizon tournament schedule…

Tuesday: #8 seed IUPUI at #1 Wright State, and #5 Illinois-Chicago at #4 Green Bay.

Wednesday: #7 Detroit Mercy at #2 Northern Kentucky, and #6 Youngstown State at #3 Oakland.

Winners in those quarterfinals advance to the “final four” in Detroit.

Semifinals will be played next Monday (ESPNU), with the title tilt Tuesday (ESPN). Only the tournament winner will be invited to join the 68-team field in the NCAA Tournament. Neither the NCAA nor Pomeroy have any Horizon team currently ranked in the top 100. 

To evaluate other conferences, do a web search for “conference only” statistics in your leagues of interest. VSiN will post many “full season” tabulations here in “Bet Smart” just before the highest profile events begin.

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