New Coach, New Pace

-Jim Root

In the never-ending uphill battle betting against “the house” on college basketball, we are always searching for the slightest advantage, the smallest chink in the Big Bad Book’s armor – an injury here, an exhausting travel day there – but too often, the bookmakers chuckle at our feeble attempts, raking in our losses to buy a slightly bigger yacht for themselves.

We at 3MW don’t often look as closely at CBB totals (we’re more “spread-heads”), but we recognize that given the lack of elite data surrounding these numbers, there may be some slight edge to be gleaned against our line-making overlords. One way to find value is if, for one reason or another, you are able to determine that a game will be played at a slower or faster tempo than expected. This changes the number of possessions relative to what the bookmakers used to calculate the total, creating a window of opportunity.

Early in the college hoops season, when information about many schools is at its scarcest, the opportunity for a bettor is consequently at its largest. If one can correctly forecast which teams will play faster or slower than the prior season, he or she will be a step ahead of the lines, which will frequently use the past season’s data is a key input. To support this, I looked at the 10 teams with the biggest increases in KenPom’s adjusted tempo ratings, and then looked at each team’s over/under record:

Identifying teams that will play faster than the previous year and hitting the over is paying out at a dizzying rate so far this year (65.2%, +17.7u), as bookmakers have struggled to keep up with teams like Evansville and Cal St. Northridge while they’ve dropped a cinder block on the gas pedal. On the other end of the spectrum, the 15 squads who are taking a tortoise approach to the ’18-19 season hasn’t been quite that lucrative, but it’s still producing winners:

Note: to clarify, this is saying that the over-under record is 28-40, so unders have won 40/68 games - as we’d expect given the tempo changes.

Every rational thinker would happily take that success rate (58.8%, +9.2u) and pocket the winnings.

Of course, if it was easy to figure out which teams would make these changes, the line would have it baked in from the start. Knowing that a team like Jackson St. will go turbo is exceedingly difficult, even while exhaustively reading coach quotes all offseason in places like Blue Ribbon.

However, we offer a solution: the easiest way to pinpoint teams that will play faster or slower is to look closely at coaching changes. For example, Mark Gottfried’s final NC State team played at the 71st-fastest pace; he clearly was going to accelerate the Matadors after Reggie Theus slowed things to a crawl last year. It also doesn’t hurt that his offenses are always better than his defenses, usually drastically so.

You might think Vegas would be on to these changes as well, and they usually are – but sometimes, it’s just difficult to fully keep up with all of the variables. The shaded teams in the above graphics are the ones who experienced a coaching change; even if you miss on the Belmonts and IUPUIs of the world (because how would you really know that those coaching philosophies would change year-over-year?), the teams whose tempo change is directly correlated to a new boss on the sideline are hitting at 34-18-1, 65.4% (overs) and 19-28, 59.6% (unders).   

Time is probably running out to capitalize on these outliers this season, but rest assured – 3MW will be monitoring them next offseason, and I’ll plan to write up a quick list before the season starts. Here’s a few notes on the most profitable coaching changes below, including signs to look for next year:

Gas Pedal Gang

Evansville – The departed Marty Simmons was one of the country’s biggest proponents of a patient motion offense, one that slowed down even more in his final campaigns. McCarty, on the other hand, played for “Quick” Rick Pitino at Kentucky and brings an NBA background, foreshadowing his affinity for up-and-down (read: totals-demolishing) hoops.

Missouri St. – Out of all the new coach-related tempo changes, this would have been the most difficult to nail down. His teams at Tennessee St. (see below!) never played in the top 160 in tempo, his final team finished 300th, and his offseason quotes didn’t give much indication of a pending speed boost. This one is an outlier (albeit a highly profitable one).

Georgia – Tom Crean taking over for Mark Fox is pretty simple: Crean’s teams were almost always in the top 100 in tempo at Indiana, while Fox’s final team slowed to a painful crawl as it force fed the ball to Yante Maten on nearly every possession. Crean has unleashed his deep roster (5th in bench minutes), taking the good (beating a game Texas Southern team by 17) with the bad (getting run out of the gym by Georgia St.) in his first season.

Tennessee St. – Following Dana Ford’s departure, the Tigers brought in Penny Collins, who played in Rick Byrd’s transition-heavy offense at Belmont and got his first head coaching gig under Cy Alexander, another proponent of uptempo hoops. He’s continued that in Nashville, turning up pressure on both ends of the court (although he’s still awaiting his first D-I win).

Slam the Brakes Brigade

Marist – If you’ve watched a John Dunne-coached basketball game, you knew this was coming – his St. Peter’s teams were predicated on a disciplined halfcourt style, preventing any transition opportunities for opponents and walking the ball up the court themselves. Marist has already won half as many games (3) as they did last year (6), so it seems like it’s working.

UNC Asheville – Mike Morrell is taking a bit of a pragmatic approach here after the mass exodus from Asheville over the offseason. His team is cripplingly young (353rd in the country in experience – yes, dead last), and there’s a pretty large talent gap against nearly all of their opponents. He has smartly tried to slow games down to prevent that talent gap from bearing out as much, and it actually helped them sneak a cover against Auburn, losing by “only” 26.

South Dakota – The Coyotes made a relatively surprising choice here, hiring Todd Lee from Grand Canyon rather than staying in-house with an assistant after Craig Smith’s run of success. Lee’s formative years as a D-I assistant were spent under Pat Douglass at UC Irvine, whose Anteater teams consistently played at a sluggish pace. This one would have been tricky to sniff out – Lee’s most recent boss, Dan Majerle, featured an average tempo – but obviously the effort would be worthwhile, given the 6-1 record for the under.

Data in this article is current through games on 12/4.