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Underrated college hoops teams offer value

By Steve Makinen  () 

We’re over a month into the college basketball season and while some teams have yet to play a game, others have played more than 10. Of the 357 Division I teams, 332 have played at least one lined game, with the average number of games among that group being 6.0. So there is enough of a sample size to make judgments about some teams. One of the exercises I like to do after a few games for each team is to analyze my Effective Strength Ratings against common perception. This is a way you can find over- and underrated teams to take advantage of in the next couple of weeks.
This article will give you the top 10 teams whose Effective Strength statistics exceed their power ratings, or in essence perception, from popular sources such Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin. I’ve taken my Effective Points per Possession ratings and assigned them an equivalent power rating on the scale I use. I then took these PPP Equivalent Ratings and compared them to the combined average of the equivalent power ratings of KenPom and Sagarin.
The assumption is that if the Effective Points Per Possession Equivalent Rating is higher than the average KP/SAG power rating, that team is playing better than its perceived strength. Does this mean that the teams playing better should automatically be “play on” teams in the coming weeks? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly a good foundation for finding undervalued teams.
Here are eight teams that might be better than we think entering the new year, all with an Effective Strength Rating at least 9.0 points better than their power rating average.
1. BAYLOR   
Conference: Big 12
Effective Strength Rating: 104.5
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 92.2 
Difference: 12.4
Steve’s analysis: The race for the top spot in college basketball seems to involve just two teams, Gonzaga and Baylor, and seeing as how the former has played and won a few more high-profile games already, the Zags are generally considered the team to beat. That might not be entirely true, though, as Baylor has been awfully impressive in its first six games, and actually has a 8.4-point edge over Gonzaga in my Effective Strength indicator. The Bears’ best win was over Illinois, but they are outscoring teams by 32.7 points per game through their first six. Coach Scott Drew’s team is a veteran unit that has size, length and virtually no weak spots. If not No. 1 right now, they are at least 1B.
2. UC-RIVERSIDE   
Conference: Big West
Effective Strength Rating: 81.8
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 70.5
Difference: 11.3
Steve’s analysis: While Baylor is a known commodity, UC-Riverside is certainly not. The Highlanders lost their first game at Pacific on opening night but have since roared back to post three wins that beat their respective point spreads by at least 13.5 points. Their defense has been phenomenal as they are holding opponents to just 55.3 points per game. UCR’s best win was a 15-point upset victory at Washington as a 10.5-point underdog. There isn’t a real star on rookie coach Mike Magpayo’s team, but it did bring back four starters from last season’s 17-15 group and obviously has shown good potential early. The next chance to back the Highlanders won’t come until Jan. 8 at home against Hawaii.
3. WINTHROP
Conference: Big South   
Effective Strength Rating: 86.5  
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 76.4 
Difference: 10.2
Steve’s analysis: Winthrop has won its first five games by an average of 15.4 points per game, while averaging 88.8 points. Like many bettors, you probably haven’t paid much attention. That’s unfortunate as the Eagles are a perfect 5-0 SU and ATS. They also lack a true star as four players are scoring in double digits, led by a modest 12.8 points per game from guards Charles Falden and Adonis Arms. This is not a big team, but it plays fast, averaging more than 72 possessions per game. After winning 24 games last season and bringing back three starters, Winthrop was expected to be competitive, but its current Effective Strength Rating is on par with teams ranked in the top 15.
4. ARMY
Conference: Patriot  
Effective Strength Rating: 78 
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 68.2 
Difference: 9.8 
Steve’s analysis: Army is another guard-heavy team that has snuck up on some opponents in the early going. The Black Knights are 4-1 and boast an upset win over Buffalo and a near upset of Florida. We haven’t seen Army for a while, though, as they last played on Dec. 6. The Black Knights’ current equivalent Effective Strength Rating of 78 makes them a real threat in the Patriot League once that gets going. The next time we’ll see this group should be Saturday and  Sunday in a back-to-back with Colgate, a team that has yet to play.
5. BELLARMINE
Conference: Atlantic Sun  
Effective Strength Rating: 69.1  
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 59.8 
Difference: 9.3 
Steve’s analysis: Bellarmine was a Division II power that made the leap to the top division this season. The Knights certainly have not been overwhelmed, winning all three of their lined games against the spread. It’s not like they are taking on nobodies either, as two of the ATS victories have come against Duke and Notre Dame. Bellarmine has some shooters, as evidenced by its 44.3% 3-point shooting mark in their first four games. Just because this team is new to D-I doesn’t make it any less worthy of your betting dollar.
6. UAB 
Conference: Conference USA
Effective Strength Rating: 85.7
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 76.7
Difference: 9.1 
Steve’s analysis: Earlier this season I flagged UAB as a team that could be better than expected under new coach Andy Kennedy. The Blazers brought back a lot of experience and Kennedy has been at some big-time programs. He’s also a UAB alum, so he is motivated to get his alma mater to the top of college basketball. So far, his team is fulfilling his expectations and mine, too, I suppose. They are 7-1 but are coming off their first loss Dec. 19. They are outscoring opponents by 23.6 points per game and boast a 6-1 ATS mark. Hopefully we didn’t miss the boat as they head into Conference USA play starting Friday night at North Texas.
7. KENT STATE 
Conference: Mid-American
Effective Strength Rating: 82.6
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 73.6 
Difference: 9.0 
Steve’s analysis: Returning just one starter from a 20-10 team, prospects weren’t the brightest for Kent State. However, a near-miss effort against Virginia in the season’s first lined game may have changed the outlook as the Golden Flashes quickly proved they are capable of competing at a high level again. Since then, they whipped two Horizon League opponents by double digits and should have the confidence to make a run in the MAC again this season, starting Saturday at Eastern Michigan. Guard Mike Nuga and forward Danny Pippen are leading this team currently, both scoring more than 17 points per game.
8. TENNESSEE
Conference: SEC   
Effective Strength Rating: 96.8  
KenPom/Sagarin Average: 87.8 
Difference: 9.0 
Steve's analysis: A lot of college basketball enthusiasts are eager to see Tennessee face a stiff challenge. If the numbers the Volunteers have put up so far are any indication, they will be up for any challenge. The good news is that hurdle should come Wednesday night when Rick Barnes’ team takes on No. 12 Missouri. Ranked in the top 5 to start the season, Tennessee was expected to be strong. The current Effective Strength Rating of 96.8 ranks second in the country, only to Baylor. The Vols are 5-1 ATS and outscoring teams by 28.2 points per game, and at this point, I’m not sure anyone else in the SEC is close. Like most of these teams, the Vols are well-balanced, with four players averaging between 10.0 and 13.2 points per game, and six of the top seven point producers being guards.
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