Tutorial: An efficient road to basketball handicapping success

By Jeff Fogle  (VSiN City newsletter) 

Tuesday college hoops upsets with #4 Oklahoma and #18 Kentucky falling as road favorites. More from the hardwood and a Wednesday tutorial on offensive and defense “efficiency” as the road to March Madness continues in VSiN City.

Tutorial: Defining and understanding offensive and defensive “efficiency” in basketball handicapping

If you listen to analytics-minded basketball handicappers, you’ll often hear the term “efficiency” being bandied about. If you’re NOT using offensive and defensive efficiency in your own handicapping process, you’re really behind the curve. The modern betting marketplace is analytics driven. Efficiency is what makes the motor run in basketball.

What is offensive or defensive efficiency? The simplest way to think about it is “scoring adjusted for pace.” Basketball fans are no longer at the mercy of TV or radio announcers saying a team has a “good defense” just because they happen to hold onto the ball for a long time on offense. Conversely, you won’t be misled by announcers saying that a fast-paced team plays “bad defense” when that’s actually an illusion created by possession counts. 

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember that the media used to rave about Princeton’s defense prior to the shot clock era because the Ivy League power played such low scoring games. If your games are ending 52-50, that must be due to great defense, right? Made sense until you watched Princeton on TV, and realized they didn’t have great shot blockers, or defensive rebounders, or swift-footed sprinters disrupting passing lanes. Princeton’s defensive “skill sets” were mortal. Its games were low scoring because the offense held onto the ball forever trying to create back door cuts for layups. 

It’s one of the ironies of the semi-recent era that the media raved about Princeton’s defense, but it was ultimately the principals of “the Princeton offense” that spread through the sport. 

On the other side of the floor, way too many in the mainstream media deride Golden State’s defense in the NBA because the Warriors play such high scoring games. This is a team with rebounders, shot blockers, speed, and the ability to force turnovers by taking opponents out of their comfort zone. When you adjust for possession count during this recent dynasty, the Warriors always grade out as FANTASTIC on defense. The games are high scoring because it’s racehorse basketball. Golden State’s defensive skill sets are a big reason the team is dominating the spot. 

How do you calculate offensive and defensive efficiency?

Offense: Points divided by the number of possessions

Defense: Points allowed divided by the number of possessions

Sometimes you’ll see it expressed numerically as “points per 100 possessions.” Other times, simply “points per possession.” If you prefer your handicapping diet to have numbers that say 1.023 or 0.984…then use per possession. If you’d rather see 102.3 or 98.4, use 100 possessions. What matters most is what you LEARN from the numbers, not where the decimal point goes.  

How do you calculate the number of possessions? 

The standard formula for estimating possession counts used by the field (as first presented publicly in “Basketball on Paper” by Dean Oliver in his 2004 landmark book), is Shot Attempts…Minus Offensive Rebounds…plus offensive turnovers…plus 0.44 times the number of free throw attempts. If you’re not comfortable using a spreadsheet, you can get close enough for learning purposes at a glance by using half the number of free throw attempts rather than 0.44 (half is 0.50, a difference so slight it won’t influence the conclusions you’ll draw). 

Of course, the easiest thing to do is to visit websites who do all the math for you! 

NBA: “Hollinger Team Stats” at ESPN show offense and defensive efficiency on the far right side of a chart. You can click on the column header to sort from best to worst. The first column is “pace” if you’re just interested in possessions per game for each team. 

College: Ken Pomeroy’s home page at kenpom.com goes a step further and adjusts everyone’s efficiency further based on their caliber of opposition. There’s also a column for adjusted tempo that accounts for the pace of opponents. 

The smartest influences in the betting markets have been using variations of these concepts for years. Dean Oliver’s book came out well over a decade ago! And, he was the first author to publish the math for public consumption. Some sharp syndicates were betting on pace (particularly on Over/Unders) in prior decades. It has become publicly known in recent years that legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith used the concept of adjusting stats for possessions as far back as 1959

Here’s a current example of possible illusions created by NOT adjusting for pace. 

As of mid-January, St. Mary’s had these points-per-game rankings:

St. Mary’s on offense: #42 in the nation

St. Mary’s on defense: #32 in the nation

Because even current-day announcers are prone to use raw stats rather than ones adjusted for pace, you’ll still hear analysts suggesting that St. Mary’s has a strong defense that helps maintain its status as a power out west. The offense isn’t quite as good…but this is a “balanced” team led by its defense. 

The problem is…St. Mary’s is like Princeton. The Gaels are very patient with the ball, which can create misleadingly low scores because of slow pace. 

As of mid-January, St. Mary’s rankings after pace adjustments:

St. Mary’s on offense: #1 in the nation

St. Mary’s on defense: #121 in the nation

This isn’t a balanced team that’s slightly better on defense than offense. Not at all! This is actually a very smart offense that consistently gives itself good shots…but the Gaels are awful on defense by the standards of quality teams. They’re not even in the top 100 nationally in points allowed per possession. 

We’re not going to suggest this happens to ALL college or pro teams. Many play near the national or NBA average in pace, so their scoring stats aren’t misleading. But teams on the extreme end, either very slow or very fast, will have illusions created by their scoring averages that are compounded by the media’s tendency to use any positive stat it can find to hype a corporate partner. As handicappers and bettors, you must dig to learn the truth about the real skill sets of teams on both sides of the floor so you can make smart bets. 

That wraps up today’s tutorial. We’ve got some Tuesday night upsets to talk about!

Big 12 Basketball: Kansas State crushes over-ranked #4 Oklahoma, covers point spread by 20

Entering the night, the AP poll may have seen the Oklahoma Sooners as Final Four material...but, none of analytics based computer ratings from Ken Pomeroy, Jeff Sagarin, or ESPN’s BPI even had the Sooners in the top dozen nationally. OU certainly fell further Tuesday with a blowout loss in Manhattan. 

Kansas State (plus 2) 87, #4 Oklahoma 69 

Two-point Pct: Oklahoma 51%, Kansas State 58%

Three Pointers: Oklahoma 7/25, Kansas State 9/17

Free Throws: Oklahoma 10/13, Kansas State 8/8

Rebounds: Oklahoma 37, Kansas State 26

Turnovers: Oklahoma 20, Kansas State 12

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Oklahoma 13-14-22, Kansas State 44-43-45

Awful night for Sooner phenom Trae Young, who continues to try playing wearing a Superman cape rather than getting his team into a flow on both sides of the court. If he’s nailing treys, it’s quite a show. Tonight, he was 2 of 10 from behind the arc while turning the ball over TWELVE times. And, the danger of creating a “stand around and watch Trae” approach is that OU’s defense disappears. Allowing 58% on two-pointers, 53% on three-pointers, and only fouling enough to create eight free throw attempts is about as invisible as it gets. Kansas State is a bubble-caliber team right now based on those computer ratings. They looked more like Kansas than Kansas State in those shooting stats. 

Big 12 estimated “market” Power Ratings: West Virginia 87 at home…84 on the road, Kansas 86 at home…85 on the road, Texas Tech 85 at home…84 on the road, Oklahoma 83, TCU 80, Texas 79, Baylor 79, Kansas State 78, Oklahoma State 77, Iowa State 74.

Note that the market is more in line with the computers than the polls. Oklahoma is certainly respected…but may end the season #4 in the Big 12 rather than #4 in the country. And, if Young continues to wear down from trying to carry all the load, things could go south quickly. No one-man teams at this level. 

SEC Basketball: #18 Kentucky shocked by late South Carolina surge

With 11:30 to go in the game, Kentucky led South Carolina 57-43. With 6:13 to go, it was still a 7-point Wildcats’ lead at 65-58. South Carolina would finish on a run of 18-3 and 33-11 to win going away. 

South Carolina (plus 1.5) 76, #18 Kentucky 68 

Two-point Pct: Kentucky 55%, South Carolina 47%

Three Pointers: Kentucky 1/11, South Carolina 5/23

Free Throws: Kentucky 23/36, South Carolina 25/38

Rebounds: Kentucky 35, South Carolina 40

Turnovers: Kentucky 16, South Carolina 9

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Kentucky 26-17-31, South Carolina 69-67-92

The refs were extremely whistle-happy, with 32 fouls called on Kentucky, 27 on South Carolina. Came out in the wash on free throws because neither team was particularly great from the line considering the practice they were getting. You can see that South Carolina won rebounds and turnovers. Both were poor from long range, but the hosts were plus 12 points on makes because Kentucky couldn’t find the twine. 

Like Oklahoma, Kentucky is a team that was ranked higher by the AP than our computer composite. BPI’s continuing skepticism of the Wildcats this season has been on the money. Plenty of time for Kentucky to figure some things out. But, this collection of talent isn’t even playing like a Sweet 16 caliber team at the moment. Look at South Carolina’s computer rankings! Kentucky used its talent advantage inside the arc, but was otherwise outplayed by an NIT caliber team. 

SEC estimated “market” Power Ratings: Florida 82, Kentucky 81, Auburn 81, Texas A&M 80, Tennessee 79 at home…78 on the road, Arkansas 79, Alabama 77, LSU 77, South Carolina 77, Missouri 76, Mississippi State 76, Georgia 75, Vanderbilt 74, Ole Miss 73.

Pundits were talking about “somebody else’s turn” in the SEC from the get-go this season. Still waiting for somebody to step up and take command. 

In other SEC action Tuesday: Georgia (plus 5) upset LSU 61-60, Mississippi State (-5) beat Vanderbilt 80-62 (continuing Vandy’s horrendous ATS run), Texas A&M (-10) eked out a 71-69 win over Ole Miss. 

ACC Basketball: #15 North Carolina makes it 59 straight in Chapel Hill over #20 Clemson

This was the only game matching ranked teams Tuesday night. The main media angle was that Clemson hasn’t EVER won a road game at Chapel Hill. That streak continued thanks to some hot long-range shooting from the Tar Heels.  

#15 North Carolina (-8) 87, #20 Clemson 79 

Two-point Pct: Clemson 64%, North Carolina 55%

Three Pointers: Clemson 11/31, North Carolina 15/31

Free Throws: Clemson 14/21, North Carolina 20/24

Rebounds: Clemson 26, North Carolina 29

Turnovers: Clemson 15, North Carolina 14

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Clemson 15-26-15, North Carolina 9-7-11

Carolina’s 15 of 31 mark on treys registers at 48.4%, which is the same as 72.6% on two-pointers. Tough for any opponent to overcome that. Clemson hung close with a strong night inside the arc. Defensive danger signs down the road for both. Tough to dominate March if you’re that soft in the paint. The computers like North Carolina more than pollsters do. 

ACC estimated “market” Power Ratings: Duke 87, Virginia 85, North Carolina 84 at home…83 on the road, Miami 80, Florida State 80, Clemson 80 at home…79 on the road, Syracuse 78, Virginia Tech 77, Louisville 78 at home…76 on the road, Notre Dame 75, Wake Forest 73, Georgia Tech 73, Boston College 73, NC State 72, Pittsburgh 64.

Also in ACC play Tuesday. Louisville (plus 2.5) scored a small overtime upset over Notre Dame 82-78, and Syracuse (-17.5) beat Pittsburgh 59-45.

Big Ten Basketball: #3 Purdue overwhelms Wisconsin

Not much to report beyond Purdue continuing its great recent form (peaking too soon?), while Wisconsin’s nightmare season keeps getting worse. 

#3 Purdue (-14) 78, Wisconsin 50

Two-point Pct: Wisconsin 38%, Purdue 44%

Three Pointers: Wisconsin 6/19, Purdue 14/22

Free Throws: Wisconsin 10/12, Purdue 4/10

Rebounds: Wisconsin 33, Purdue 28

Turnovers: Wisconsin 20, Purdue 9

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Wisconsin 80-66-67, Purdue 2-1-2

Purdue jumped ahead 12-0, and still won the rest of the game by 16! Amazing that a team can maintain such hot shooting from long range in almost a full night of garbage time. Wisconsin’s turnovers stick out like a sore thumb. Hard to even imagine Wiscy as an NIT team right now. The early hints about the league from the Big 10 ACC challenge are turning out to be even more dramatic than imagined. 

Big Ten estimated “market” Power Ratings: Purdue 86, Michigan State 86, Michigan 80, Ohio State 78, Penn State 77, Maryland 75, Wisconsin 75, Indiana 75, Northwestern 76, Iowa 72, Nebraska 72, Illinois 71, Minnesota 71, Rutgers 70.

Time will tell whether Purdue is really great, or if it’s just temporarily running up the score on a collapsing conference.

American Athletic Conference Basketball: #12 Cincinnati scores less than 50, still wins and covers!

It takes some fancy limbo to win by double digits when you can’t even reach 50 points. Cincinnati’s tough defense loves wrestling matches, which positioned them well to shut down a very disappointing Central Florida side. 

#12 Cincinnati (-7.5) 49, Central Florida 38

Two-point Pct: Cincinnati 42%, Central Florida 31%

Three Pointers: Cincinnati 5/20, Central Florida 5/18

Free Throws: Cincinnati 6/10, Central Florida 3/10

Rebounds: Cincinnati 38, Central Florida 35

Turnovers: Cincinnati 9, Central Florida 21

Kenpom-Sagarin-BPI: Cincinnati 8-10-7, Central Florida 78-73-73

Ugly but effective. Those of you who focus more on postseason action might remember Tacko Fall of UCF from last year’s NIT. The 7’6” center from Senegal only 1 blocked shot but still made his presence felt. Unfortunately, his team doesn’t have much offense when he’s on the floor. UCF was supposed to make a run at the Dance this season after last year’s successful NIT. Instead, their computer rankings are NIT caliber at best. And, the market properly had them as an outmatched home underdog vs. a league power. 

American Athletic estimated “market” Power Ratings: Wichita State 84, Cincinnati 81, Houston 77, SMU 77, Temple 71, Central Florida 71, Connecticut 70, Memphis 69, Tulsa 67, Tulane 67, East Carolina 57, South Florida 56.

Looks like only four teams are going to matter. Though, Wichita State and Cincinnati could matter for a long time.

Time for a quick Big East preview from Greg Peterson before we call it a day. 

College Basketball: “Running the Floor” with Greg Peterson

#19 Seton Hall (15-3 straight up, 9-9 ATS) at Creighton (14-4 straight up, 10-7 ATS)

8:30 p.m. ET on FS1

Early Line: Creighton -5

The market appears to have been fading Creighton in recent weeks. After a streak of being bet up in five straight games from December 5th through December through the 20th, the line has moved in Creighton's favor just once since then. That is significant as its game on December 20th against USC Upstate was its last game before Big East play began. The Blue Jays have been faded in three of its past six games since then.

These teams met to kick off Big East play this year and Seton Hall went from opening as a four-point favorite to closing as a five-point favorite. Since that game though, Seton Hall has been bet up just once though the two times that the line moved away from the Pirates' favor were just half point moves, so the market is relatively stagnant on this squad.

On the Block: Key Analytics Rankings (out of 351 D1 teams)

Offensive Efficiency: Seton Hall 1.090 (52nd), Creighton 1.165 (7th)

Defensive Efficiency: Seton Hall 0.953 (61st), Creighton 0.959 (72nd)

Pace: Seton Hall 73.4 (121st), Creighton 76.2 (30th)

Creighton is a team that likes to shoot 3-pointers and turn its games into track meets. The Blue Jays are shooting 38.4 percent from 3-point range, which is 51st in the country. Its points from 3-point range accounts for 36.2 percent of its points. which is 63rd in DI basketball.

Seton Hall plays a much more big man orientated game, as the Pirates get just 26.7 percent of their points from distance…which is 280th nationally.

The Pirates are an interesting bunch in that their lone tendency is getting the majority of their points on 2-point shots. The Pirates score 43.9 percent of their points on 2-point field goals, which is 13th in the country.

Seton Hall is well-rounded in all facets of the game with no clear strengths or weaknesses. Instead of specializing in one or two different aspects of the game, Seton Hall often tries to attack whatever a team’s weakness is. For Creighton, that is forcing turnovers. The Blue Jays get a turnover on only 15.2 percent of opponent’s possessions, which is 331st in the country.

For Seton Hall to cover, it must capitalize on the fact that Creighton does not apply a lot of ball pressure on defense and use it to get good shots.

Creighton must also value the ball if it wants to win and cover. The Blue Jays have a 1.705 assist to turnover ratio, which is third in the country. Adding to that, Creighton is third in the country in 2-point field goal percentage at 60.7 percent and has an overall field goal percentage of 50.9, which is eighth.

If the game is close, much like it was the first time these two clashed with Seton Hall getting a 90-84 win, the free throw shooting edge goes to Creighton. Creighton shoots 74.8 percent at the line, which is 58th in the country to Seton Hall’s 66.8 percent, which is 296th.

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