Every great and powerful foe has one small weakness. The Gremlins had bright lights, the Wicked Witch of the West had water, and sportsbooks have early-season college basketball totals.
The Over/Under lines on NCAA hoops games in the first couple months of the season are the most vulnerable you will find bookmakers at any point in the sports calendar. And they’ll be the first ones to tell you.
“Early (season), middle, late. Honestly, they’re all a nightmare,” Scott Kaminsky, line manager at TheGreek.com, tells Covers of college basketball totals. “The hardest thing for books to beat are totals. It’s a weakness for us all year round. But in the beginnings, the players have the edge.”
It’s a combination of elements that make early college hoops totals the books’ kryptonite. The recent trend of one-and-done players, since the NBA installed its sticky rules, has been a headache for oddsmakers with the constant turnaround of talent at major programs. With rosters switching up year-to-year, it’s tough to base any odds on last year’s production.
Add to those unknowns a massive schedule featuring more than 350 different schools (10 years ago sportsbooks didn’t book small conference games, sticking to the major conferences), coaches trying to find chemistry in their lineups, and the sheer volatility to predicting how a bunch of college kids will perform.
Ed Salmons, an oddsmaker at the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, deals with another curve ball when tackling college basketball totals, pointing to different officiating crews around the country.
“College Hoops totals have always been the hardest thing for sportsbooks,” Salmons tells Covers. “Turnover in team players, referees who work the game and how they officiate it. Each game you have different refs from different conferences who are told how to call fouls or not to call fouls from a particular conference.”
And to make matters worse, the only people betting college basketball at this point in the schedule are the wiseguys, who can smell the blood in the water. In fact, when talking to most sportsbooks, the public really doesn’t have an influence on the NCAAB odds until the NCAA tournament begins in mid-March. That leaves line managers to go toe-to-toe with sharps for more than four months.
“During the regular season, the sharps are probably over 90 percent of your total (NCAAB) handle,” says Salmons.
It’s no wonder, with all those factors having a say and the wolves at the door each night, that sportsbooks protect themselves against college hoops totals with extremely low limits in the early goings. According to the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook, college totals have a limit of $500 until March Madness, when they can go to $1,000 or higher – depending on the game.
“We have embarrassingly low limits on college basketball right now,” admits Kaminsky, whose customer base is almost entirely sharp bettors. “Probably going to be that low until the New Year.”
Oddsmakers also prioritize games, and not just for the ones being played in major conferences. Exposure factors into how much time is spent sharpening the number, so a nationally televised matchup – like that between Kansas and Kentucky in the Champions Classic earlier this month – will get the bulk of the attention due to the appeal it has over another non-conference clash between programs from notable leagues.
“Games with big teams that are constantly on TV and under the nation's magnifying glass are a lot easier to handle,” says an oddsmaker for SBG Global. “Most of the industry deals totals for TV games only for the majority of the season but that starts changing deeper into the season.”
So, now that you know where the oddsmakers are weakest, you’re probably wondering how to exploit that soft spot. Funny enough, books aren't shy about telling you.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, and a lot of that is coaching styles,” admits Kaminsky. “You have to know the tempo and the offense they run. It’s the same as other sports. Some coaches like to run up-tempo and others don’t.”
Covers Expert Steve Merril says you can find great value in college basketball totals when you have a mismatch in pace of play: a fast team versus a slow team.
“It is very difficult for oddsmakers to set totals on these games,” Merril says. “If you can accurately predict and handicap which team will be able to dictate the pace and tempo, you can often find value with both the side and total in this type of game.”
Another thing to take advantage of as the college schedule matures is the skewed records and stats produced from a unstable non-conference schedule. Teams with many new pieces may take time to come together or a team with a new coach could struggle to learn the system in the opening games of the year. Those wrinkles tend to iron themselves out by the time conference play tips off in the New Year.
One last tip for betting college hoops Over/Unders is to get the number early. As mentioned, the only ones betting NCAAB totals at this time of the season are the wise guys, who quickly hit a weak number hard and force oddsmakers to dramatically adjust those numbers. College basketball totals are for the most part the latest odds on the board, when compared to other sports, often times not showing up until just hours before game time.
It’s nothing to see a college basketball Over/Under quickly move double digits before tipoff. It’s those types of radical line moves that show just how difficult a job coming up with college basketball totals can be for sportsbooks.
“I will say one thing for them,” Kaminsky laughs. “At least you don’t have to worry about the weather.”
Editor's note: This story was originally published November 2014.