A few years ago, I was in Las Vegas for a reporting trip. It was a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of college basketball season, post-Super Bowl. Ed Salmons and Jeff Sherman, bookmakers at the Las Vegas Hotel, were standing behind their sports book's betting counter in a nook hidden from public view, hunched over a computer screen. A sharp player they both respected had just come in to bet a mid-major game between two god-knows-who, who-can-remember teams. It's the kind of game that would only interest people betting on it, those owed money by people betting on it and those related to the players. Marco Rubio lip-smacking would garner higher TV ratings.
This is what happens in Vegas beginning in the days after the Super Bowl. The pace slows, but in some ways, the stakes on college basketball games are higher than those on NFL games. During the football season, there is so much volume and the patterns of the public are so predictable that bookmakers can get away with mistakes. They know that if they post a bad line -- and wiseguys jump on it -- chances are good the professionals will be taking the opposite side of the amateurs. And come Sunday, the flood of square money is going to come so fast that any mistakes will be washed away.
But that is not true in college basketball. The only people betting midweek games are professionals. And their behavior is scrutinized much more carefully by bookmakers. Sherman and Salmons were debating what the move postbet should be. This wasn't an epic back and forth. It lasted 10 seconds, tops, and mostly happened in a code of numbers and nods. A player bet a college basketball game. A number moved. A butterfly died in the heat of the desert. A man burped up a chili dog from the deli across the way. This is the cycle of Vegas.
When Sherman and Salmons pulled away from the computer, I noticed that the screen was filled with columns and numbers and a strange typewriterlike font. It was 2009. And the website they were using appeared to have been built with one thing in mind: utility.
The site was KenPom.com.
At the time, I had never heard of it. But Salmons told me he respected the site so much that if he knew a gambler was using it, he'd be more inclined to move a line. The guy who had just bet was a KenPom user. Back then, KenPom was a little-known website run by Salt Lake City-based meteorologist Ken Pomeroy, who was obsessively compiling college basketball stats and spitting them back out in increasingly different ways. He ranked teams based on efficiency and tempo, not just performance. They were college basketball advanced metrics and they were revelatory -- especially for gamblers.
Before the Super Bowl, I wrote that Vegas is the leading indicator when it comes to economic recovery. Well, the same holds true for advanced data. That is where the edge is and, if someone is doing it right, they figure it out quickly. KenPom was doing it right. And it signified the beginning of analytics getting its due in the college basketball space. (The irony: After I learned about Pomeroy, I had him on a couple of my podcasts until he told me he was going to pass because he didn't want to be too closely connected to gambling.)
What you see now is Florida coach Billy Donovan remaking his team into a defensive flytrap. He realized that the teams advancing to the Final Four consistently ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency rating (DER), but not necessarily top 10 in plain-old defense. (I am stealing this stat from a story about Florida that will appear in ESPN The Magazine's Analytics Issue, written by Eddie Matz, out next week. Too bad, Matz.) This season, Donovan's Gators surprised the masses with their run into the top 10, which was earned with a DER of 82.5, No. 1 in the country.
Do you know which team ranks No. 2 in DER? The other Florida-based team that people are freaking out about, the Miami Hurricanes. It's no surprise that Miami, led by former George Mason coach Jim Larranaga, is dominating in a stat that just a few years ago only mattered to stat-heads and gamblers. Last season, in The Mag's first analytics issue, Peter Keating wrote a great piece about how Larranaga was remaking Miami through metrics. Here's a little poem I pulled from the story:
- The timeless lessons of basketball fundamentals aren't enough of a foundation for him; he has always wanted to ground his teachings in empirical data. "The better you can assess a situation and figure out how to improve it, the better you'll be against teams that don't have that ammunition," he says.
- So Larranaga, who majored in economics at Providence College and graduated in '71, started tracking what we would now call advanced metrics 30 years ago. And as new hoops stats have spread around the Internet, he has embraced, absorbed and applied them with the kind of zeal you'd expect from an enthusiast one-third his age. Larranaga logs on to KenPom.com, RealTimeRPI.com and WarrenNolan.com. His assistants crunch updated numbers in real time during games. He quotes stats he cares about to reporters. He posts them for his players to see and to focus their goals. "What your mind dwells upon, your body acts upon," he likes to say.
Given Larranaga's love of newfangled stats, I am sure he will be pleased as Democrats at the State of the Union about what I am about to reveal: The Miami Hurricanes are the country's top-ranked team in the debut of this season's Sweat Barometer.
What's that? You don't remember the Sweat Barometer? You are new to the column and don't know what the Sweat Barometer is? Well, it's a metric I concocted a few years ago, which Sal Selvaggio of Madduxsports.com calculates using his super database that compiles advanced betting stats for every team in every major sport. The Sweat Barometer measures how well college basketball teams do against the spread -- and how much they will make you sweat when you bet them. We know this by tracking the margin by which they cover (or don't).
For example, on average, the closing line for Miami Hurricanes games this season has been Miami by 4.24. Their current Sweat Barometer number is plus-8.34. That means the Canes have been covering the spread by an average of 8.34 points per game. When I called Sal on Wednesday afternoon, I first asked him to tell me the most surprising team this season, from a betting perspective.
"Miami, no question," he said. "They have been phenomenal. I think a lot of us thought they would be good, but no one saw this coming."
What's amazing is that even after the win over Duke and a follow-up victory against Florida State -- when the Canes had every reason to fall flat -- the adjustment by bookmakers and bettors has been tiny. "I'll be honest, I didn't adjust my rating on them until they beat Florida State after the Duke game," Sal said. "That showed me they were not prone to getting too up or down. The sharps are wrong on this team, and they have been all year."
But you, my degenerate friend, don't have to be. Below is the first Sweat Barometer for the 2012-2013 college hoops season. It will be featured each week until the tourney begins.
To see which teams are the best and worst to bet on this season in college basketball, subscribe to ESPN Insider.