If you were only going to bet on one sport for the rest of your life, basketball would be a great choice. Other than soccer, there’s no team sport in the world that offers as many betting opportunities than the hardwood!
I’m not even talking about all of the European leagues, world championships, Olympics and other international tournaments. Thanks to the NBA and NCAA alone, North America serves up thousands of elite basketball contests every season. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of NBA and NCAA basketball games in a season outnumbers the amount of hockey (NHL and junior), football (NFL and college) and baseball (MLB) games in a calendar year combined!
In case you’ve never given NBA and NCAA basketball betting a try (or even if you have), there are some key differences between the two leagues you should know about before risking your money on the action. In this article, I’ll compare betting on NBA and NCAA basketball, including the pros and cons of each league as well as some important rule differences that could affect your wagers.
One thing I love the most about betting on college basketball is that you’re going to get max effort from the players virtually every night. The pros have the luxury of taking the occasional night off with the knowledge that they’ll still get paid (just look at how LeBron James openly admits he coasts through parts of the regular season before stepping things up down the stretch), but these college kids are fueled every night by the pure love of the game. They don’t get as tired playing a busy schedule (during conference tournaments, it’s common to see teams play three or even four straight days), and they’re also playing to get noticed by the professional leagues.
Another awesome part about betting college basketball is the volume of games. Even though the NCAA season is roughly half of the NBA regular season, there are 10 times as many teams in NCAA Division 1 as there are in the pros.
That equals about 5 times as many college games per calendar year, and the fact that the NCAA season is so short makes it feel like the disparity is even more than that. I’m not exaggerating when I say that any given Saturday during the college season can feature more than 100 games, staggered throughout the day from noon eastern to the wee hours of the following morning. If you’re a basketball betting junkie, you’ll get a virtual smorgasbord of hardcourt action every weekend.
There are two things in particular that I find challenging about betting college basketball:
Let’s start with the first point: how much the rosters change. College players have only five years of NCAA eligibility, and even players who stay for the full five years look a lot different as a senior than they did as freshmen. Most players these days are gone before the full five years are up, whether they graduate as four-year seniors or leave for the pros following their freshman or sophomore campaigns. The duration of college careers may get even shorter in the near future in the wake of the scare to Duke phenom Zion Williamson and his blown-out Nike, as NCAA stars become even more eager to shed their amateur status and start making the big bucks they deserve.
It makes for a ton of work. Yeah, there are always a few teams every year that bring back nearly all of their roster from the previous season, but there are a lot more schools that look entirely different from year to year. You may start to get a handle on each team’s personnel and capabilities by February, but then there’s only a month or so left before you’ve got to do it all again the following year. (If there is a silver lining to the roster turnover, it’s that the oddsmakers also need to do their homework every year to stay on top of things. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort, you might be able to get an early edge on the bookies with some superior research.)
The other part that I find challenging about betting college basketball is the massive disparity between blue blood programs (Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, etc.) and the smaller schools. If you’re betting on the NCAA championship futures, there’s really no value in wagering on teams that are priced out of the top 10, since the cream almost always rises to the top in March Madness. Since 2003, only eight different schools (including Connecticut and North Carolina three times and Florida, Duke and Villanova twice each) have been crowned the national champion. And just a couple of weeks away from the 2019 tournament, it was the usual suspects once again in contention to cut down the nets in Indianapolis: Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Michigan, and Michigan State were among the only eight teams priced under +2500 at BetOnline.
The disparity also affects single-game wagering. In non-conference play early in the season, it’s not uncommon to see point spreads in the 20s or even 30s, and we often see that in March Madness when teams play out of conference again. Going into the 2018 NCAA Tournament, #16 seeds were 0-135 against #1 seeds. With huge mismatches like that, it can be really difficult to bet on point spreads and totals when you don’t know how motivated the big favorite will be in the second half, or whether the overmatched underdog will throw in the towel.
On the bright side, maybe the worm is turning a bit when it comes to the small schools taking down the heavyweights. You know that 0-135 stat I quoted just a couple of sentences ago about the NCAA Tournament? Well, that stat is now 1-138 going into the 2019 tournament, after UMBA routed the Virginia Cavaliers 74-54 in the opening round of March Madness last year. We’ve also seen some mid-majors get to the Final Four in recent years, including VCU and Butler both getting to the national semifinals in 2011 — the first time that two mid-majors had advanced that far since 1985.
The best thing to me about betting on NBA basketball is that you’re wagering on the highest professional level in the sport. That may not sound like a convincing reason, so allow me to explain why.
When you’re betting on NBA basketball, you’re dealing with professional basketball players whose biggest (and in some cases only) focus in life is their NBA careers. That’s different from college, where you have no idea where a teenager’s head might be at when he takes the court. While many NCAA players have to balance their studies, relationships, and stresses of being in a national spotlight for the first time, the pros are used to having to deal with the media attention and pressures of big games. They won’t be fazed as much, which is why their performance can be more predictable — assuming, of course, that they’re motivated (something I touched on earlier in this article.)
I also enjoy the continuity of the sport, which stands in stark contrast to the college roster turnover I mentioned earlier. Even though we’re starting to see more superstar talent migrate around the Association (ie. LeBron James and Kevin Durant), the majority of top players tend to stay with their teams for extended periods of time. You don’t need to spend every offseason researching each team’s strengths and weaknesses, and you can rely on last year’s results a lot when handicapping games early in the NBA season.
There will always be some slight adjustments to be made for trades, free agent signings, and draft picks, but you generally have a pretty good sense of what you’re going to get from each franchise year to year.
At the risk of repeating what I’ve alluded to a few times already in this article, the #1 challenge in betting NBA basketball (in my opinion) is you can never be sure how motivated the players are.
Heck, even LeBron James is openly admitting that he takes it easy for the first half of the season before “activating himself” for playoff mode in the final couple of months. Kawhi Leonard suited up in roughly half of Toronto’s games in his first season as a Raptor, routinely held out of the lineup as part of “load management.” And countless other players have been scratched from the lineup during a busy time in the season, as coaches and GMs have become savvier about the long-term toll that playing back-to-back games or three games in four nights can have on a player’s body. When team management doesn’t even care that much about winning every night, how can we expect the players to give full effort all the time?
Speaking of not trying to win all the time, how about the most recent epidemic hounding the Association: tanking.
Unlike college basketball, where players are allowed to decide where they want to go, new talent in the NBA is dispersed through the draft. The worse a team is the previous season, the more likely they are to get a high pick in the following year’s entry draft, which is why we’re seeing a lot of teams gut their roster in the attempt to be the worst in the standings.
It certainly worked for the Philadelphia 76ers (“Trust The Process”), and it’s a strategy that has also worked in Major League Baseball for small-market franchises looking to stockpile talent through the draft. Again, it’s hard to bet on games when you don’t know whether one (or both) of the teams is even trying to win!
No comparison of betting college basketball and betting the NBA would be complete without discussing how the different rules affect the sport. There are several differences between the two leagues, but let’s hone in on the ones that affect bettors the most: how long the games are, how long the shot clock is and how free throws are awarded.
College basketball games feature two 20-minute halves, while NBA contests are split up into four 12-minute quarters. That means that NCAA matches are 40 minutes long, eight minutes shorter than a regulation NBA game. This matters to bettors because the longer the game is, the greater advantage that is to the more talented team (the larger the sample size, the smaller the variance.) If you’re an underdog bettor, the NCAA rules are more suited to your style of wagering, while those who love betting favorites might find an easier time of it in the NBA.
In case you’re not familiar with the shot clock, it’s a timer that regulates how long each team has to shoot the ball before being whistled for a violation. In the NBA, teams have to attempt a shot within 24 seconds of taking possession, while college basketball allows teams to have 30 seconds (the shot must hit the rim in order for the shot clock to be reset.) That extra six seconds for college teams to shoot the ball every possession may not sound like a lot, but it’s 25% more time than the pros have. It means that NBA games are faster-paced with more possessions, which leads to more points per minute than the college game. It also makes it harder for college teams to rally from big deficits, since a team with a big lead in the NCAA can milk down the clock a little bit more every possession.
Some of the rules governing free throws are the same in both the NBA and NCAA. For example, any time a player is fouled while attempting a shot, they’ll be awarded two free throws (unless they’re attempting a three-point shot, in which case they’ll be given three free throws). They’ll also shoot those free throws from the same distance on the court (15 feet from the basket).
However, the rules about how free throws are awarded differ when players are fouled when not attempting a shot, otherwise known as the bonus system. In the NBA, once a team has committed at least five fouls in a quarter (four in overtime) or at least two fouls in the final two minutes of a quarter, the other team will be given two free throws every time they’re fouled. College, by contrast, uses a “one and one” system following seven team fouls in a half, requiring the fouled team to sink its first free-throw attempt in order to earn a second one. Once a team has committed 10 fouls in a half, the other team will then receive two free throws per foul, regardless of whether they sink the first free-throw attempt or not.
These differences place a premium on free-throw shooting in college. Since most NCAA players aren’t as proficient at shooting free throws as the pros, teams aren’t hurt as badly by fouling when in the “one-and-one” situation. This is something to be aware of in live betting, when a team can actually benefit from fouling its opponent — especially if they have several players on the court who aren’t good at shooting free throws.
Honestly, I love betting on both of these types of basketball. While there are some key differences between the two leagues, the game is generally the same. As long as you’re aware of rule differences like the length of a game, shot clock duration and free throw systems, you can thrive betting on both sports.
But if you were only going to pick one of these leagues to bet on, I would suggest basing your decision on how much time you have to handicap the games. College basketball will require more of your time, but the upside is potentially higher because the oddsmakers can’t possibly be on top of 300-plus teams in the nation at all times. If your time is limited, you’re better off betting the NBA because of the ease of information that is available and the smaller amount of roster turnover from year to year.