Oddsmakers admit vulnerability with early-season college basketball totals

Wednesday, March 13, 2019
Louisville's Jordan Nwora (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
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LAS VEGAS — Oddsmakers here in Las Vegas have long admitted totals, particularly in November and December, are the “softest” markets in college basketball betting, but two new rule changes could throw a bigger wrench into booking OVER/UNDERs.

New this season, the 3-point line distance moves from 20 feet, 9 inches to the international basketball distance of 22-1 3/4. While totals could be adjusted downward this season, the distance change may lead to more floor spacing and cuts to the basket and actually result in an increase in scoring. With the goal of enhancing the pace of the game, the NCAA also approved resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds (instead of a full 30) after an offensive rebound.

Add these rules changes to a long list of new coaches, transfers and freshman that oddsmakers must sift through as they crunch college hoops numbers while also managing NFL, NBA and college football. It’s understandable that nuances like new Siena coach Carmen Maciariello promising a faster pace of play could fall through the cracks.

“Not that it’s a burden, but college hoops just has the most teams (353) of anything that we do, and it happens to start right in the middle of the NFL, NBA and college football season,” Dave Sharapan, risk analyst at CG Technology, told BetIndiana News at his sportsbook at The Palms. “There is no other sport that has this many teams, so to quantify that in power ratings, numbers and algorithms, it’s hard, and sometimes things get missed.

“If the season started June 1st, it would be a sharper market sooner in the year. If you (as a bettor) know certain conferences or certain teams, you’re going to be great early in the season, but come March the numbers are sharp as could be.”

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A clear indication that college basketball totals are “softer” than other betting markets is the limits on bet size imposed by sportsbooks. There is a reason they’ll take $20,000 NFL sides but only $500 on college totals.

“Our limits reflect it, we are only taking a couple hundred dollars on college totals,” BetIndiana oddsmaker Robert Walker, who worked at The Mirage for over a decade, said during a conversation at his office in Vegas. “I don’t think I’ve ever been confident in (booking) a basketball total, NBA included. We see how these markets move so fast, 5-10 points sometimes, even the first-half total, and it doesn’t take much money to move it. If you are looking for places that we are weakest, it’s certainly college totals.”

At the Westgate SuperBook on Monday, vice president of risk management Ed Salmons said that as betting volume increases, the market will sharpen by December, a far cry from totals moving by as many as 20 points nearly two decades ago.

“You could go across the street and see a total that was 10 points off of what you just booked,” Salmons said. “Those were different times, but the totals still move like that sometimes, just a lot quicker.”

While oddsmakers, to some degree, lean on quantitative analysts such as KenPom and Bart Torvick to set college basketball totals, the projected numbers are often slow to catch up to injuries or possible tempo changes installed by coaches at small schools. This dynamic opens opportunities for bettors who focus on smaller programs.

“Especially for the really small schools like Gardner Webb, you can ride those teams and totals nearly all the way to their conference tournaments it seems,” Sharapan said.

MORE: Big Ten college basketball betting primer