In college basketball, take a good look at the styles

By Adam Burke  ( 


One of my favorite things about betting college basketball is all of the different styles of play on the court. There are little nuances in the NBA, but nothing compares to the variety in college, with 358 teams and enormous talent gaps.

Some teams play blazing fast and some play at a glacial pace. Some teams chuck a ton of 3s and some prefer to get to the rim. Some teams play high-pressure defense and others sit back in a zone.

If you know about these teams and their styles, you can absolutely find some matchup advantages, or at least some starting points, simply by looking at some strengths and weaknesses.

Zone defenses

Think about a team such as Merrimack in the Northeast Conference. The Warriors play a zone defense that perplexed opponents during their transition to Division I in 2019-2020. Merrimack was 20-11 overall and 14-4 in conference play. Last season, the Warriors were 9-9 with an all-conference schedule. This season, they are off to a 3-0 start in league play, but I don’t think it lasts.

The Northeast is a terrible 3-point shooting conference. Merrimack actually leads the conference, but the Warriors’ 3-0 record comes against teams that rank 288th, 297th and 173rd in 3-point percentage.

Knowing that Merrimack runs a zone, I can circle games such as Saturday against Saint Francis (Pa.), a team that ranks 161st in 3-point percentage at 33.6%, second in the conference. That is a tougher matchup for Merrimack than other teams in the Northeast.

Furthermore, Merrimack (and most zone teams) is bad on the boards. Opponents haven’t been able to take advantage to this point, but teams such as Wagner and Bryant might.

Aggressive defenses

Think about a team such as Abilene Christian in the WAC. The Wildcats, under Brette Tanner, run full-court pressure, something Tanner carried over from previous coach Joe Golding. ACU leads the nation in TO% in games against Division I opponents but just lost back-to-back home games to Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State. Their non-conference schedule was remarkably weak and better guard play proved to be a problem.

Next up for the Wildcats are Grand Canyon and New Mexico, two well-coached, disciplined teams with experienced guard play. Those teams would seem to be tough matchups, then the Wildcats’ schedule softens up again and their style of play should be more successful.

Another thing to consider is the Wildcats have forced a lot of turnovers but haven’t shot the ball particularly well. They prevent the opposition from

scoring because of those takeaways, but they don’t take full advantage on the offensive end. Against better competition, that will be an issue.

Fast-paced teams

Arizona is a higher-profile team and seems to be moving faster than ever before under Tommy Lloyd. The Wildcats are third in adjusted tempo under the first-year coach and it’s working, with Arizona off to a 12-1 start.

The Wildcats had not been in the top 100 in tempo since 2015, which may have been Sean Miller’s best team with a run to the Elite Eight. As a coach, if you have the depth and you are better than other teams, why not push the pace? If you have an advantage on every possession, then more possessions is a clear advantage.

To this point, the Wildcats have been better than their opponents in every game except for a road loss to Tennessee. The difference in that game came at the free-throw line. There are some teams, such as Arizona, that have the talent, height and athleticism to play at a fast pace. There are other teams that play at a fast pace but have none of those things. Pace is especially important in games with big spreads and Arizona will have some during conference play.

If you have the opportunity to profile these teams and have an idea of the styles they play, you can find some really good opportunities. It’s a big reason why conference specialization is a solid strategy. Knowing 30-40 teams inside and out to gain an edge is a lot better than trying to know hundreds of teams.

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