Hitting a Wall

In mid-February you'll hear TV announcers talk about freshman players "hitting a wall" in college basketball. That's because we've reached the point in the calendar where high school seasons would normally be ending (in terms of the number of games played), and first-year college students aren't prepared for their new endurance test.

Personally, I think people make too much of this most of the time. A coach doesn't want to admit he made a tactical error, so he blames a freshman. Coaches make so many mistakes! And, even when it does happen, the player eventually gets a second wind in March once the tournaments start. You don't hear about tired freshmen in March. Cream rises.

But, there will probably be a few instances in the next two weeks were a handful of freshman PLAYMAKERS and GAMEBREAKERS will start to play tired. This caliber of athlete has been carrying a heavy load, and isn't yet to the point where tournament adrenaline kicks in. It's not freshman backups who hit a wall. It's the STARS that are doing heavy lifting.

How do you find these players? Here are a few tips.

*Refresh your memories on roster construction with the teams or conferences your following. Note how many freshman, sophomores, juniors, and seniors are getting serious minutes in rotations. This is a good exercise anyway because knowing who the most "experienced" teams are will come in handy.

*Isolate the freshman, and tentatively assume a minor drop-off from now through the end of February. Again, a MINOR drop off. If you were going to back that team for a big play, make it a medium or smaller play. Turn small plays into passes. Turn passes into leans the other way. There will be time to react to something more dramatic. Don't assume the worst until you see it.

*Look for evidence in box scores that performance has fallen meaningfully. A few players WILL hit a wall, and it will prevent their teams from covering point spreads. The stats to look at are turnovers, turnover/assist ratios, three-point shooting percentage, and two-point shooting percentage. When the legs go, it shows up in those areas. Now, fatigue also shows up on defense, but that's harder to see in box scores. Here, you need the eye test. If you're watching a game and you see a freshman is suddenly a step slower than he used to be, that may be all the evidence you need right there. Force yourself to LOOK for evidence of fatigue rather than just rooting for your bets.

*If you've found a true example of a player "hitting a wall," continue monitoring the situation, particularly his minute counts to see if the head coach is making an adjustment. Smart head coaches will address the issue immediately. Bad head coaches will make it a "gut check" and try to break the guy, to his team's own detriment.

*Finally, remember to account for pace. It's a lot more likely a freshman will run out of gas if he's playing for an up-tempo team. Slower teams help mollify the fatigue issue because there are chances to rest during the game. Read the home page at kenpom.com to see national pace rankings. Amongst the elite teams this season, we have some extreme differences. A few are really fast, many are very slow. You should be re-familiarizing yourself with that angle with March coming up anyway.

Luckily for you, we're not talking about a large number of players. You can complete this homework assignment in relatively short order if you're only following a few conferences. Maybe if you're watching a game on TV from another part of the country and here the issue brought up, dig into that a little deeper. Can't hurt, and might unlock a few extra winners for you.

I personally really enjoy handicapping in the weeks leading up to the tournaments. THE MOTIVATION FACTOR looms very large for some teams, though it's often a "lack of motivation" that is the true key. Look-ahead and letdown situations are all over the schedule. Most conference games are now "revenge" games as well, which adds in a nice wrinkle here and there. Nuts and bolts handicapping has always been rewarded after Valentine's Day in this sport. Just as true now as it was 40 years ago.

If you'd like some help finding edges this week and through the rest of the college basketball season, KELSO STURGEON'S top plays can always be purchased at this website by credit card. Questions about extended service and combination packages can be answered by calling my office at 1-800-755-2255 during normal business hours. I have great packages that take you through the rest of March Madness or the NBA Playoffs.

The Dean of Sports Handicapping appreciates your attendance and hard work. I'll probably have an NBA theme in our next class, with the pros returning from the All-Star break at the end of the week. Looks like we're going to have quite a race in the Eastern Conference. And, there's still time for somebody in the West to convince skeptics that Golden State can be defeated.

I'll also try to mix more AAF content into the coursework. It looks like that's becoming a viable betting option in Las Vegas given the response at sports books in the first two weeks of the regular season. If the league can have at least one exciting game per week, that will be enough to keep it going.

See you Friday.