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How to make money betting college basketball’s NCAA bubble teams
By Jason Logan

The word “bubble” is going to start popping in your ear more and more over the next two weeks. For college basketball fans, the bubble means a team is on the cusp of the NCAA tournament – where a big win or bad loss can make the difference come Selection Sunday.

For basketball bettors, however, bubble teams mean value – either betting on or against them. Programs with uncertain futures this March can provide some extra pop for your college hoops wagers, playing with added motivation to get off the bubble. Or they can be fade bait, crumbling under the weight of the bubble until their tournament hopes burst with a season-ending slump.

With only a handful of games left for these schools to paint their postseason picture, we break down the best ways to handicap and wager bubble teams in the home stretch of the conference schedule:

Size up the sked

There are more than 20 squads currently tagged as “bubble teams” when scouring the mainstream media polls and countless more that could eek their way into one of the 68 NCAA spots available. The first step in finding the value with the bubble is to break down which teams actually have the best shots at impressing the selection committee in the final two weeks.

Major conferences usually offer teams one or two more games versus ranked rivals, the best way for them to boost their NCAA resume. This is automatic hope for these schools, who know that if they take care of those big-name opponents, they have a chance to go dancing.

One team currently on the tourney fence is Ohio State, which sits 10-6 in Big Ten play. The Buckeyes, who are 2-8 versus the country’s Top 100, missed a huge opportunity to beef up their NCAA credentials against Michigan State Tuesday, but get another crack at the Spartans in the season finale. Before that, OSU faces No. 8 Iowa this weekend, giving the Buckeyes two chances to impress – and late-season wins hold more weight come Selection Sunday than ones early in the season.

On the other hand, a program like Butler has already played its conference heavyweights in the Big East and is left with an unimpressive schedule featuring Georgetown, Seton Hall, and Marquette. Even if the Bulldogs win out in those three games, they may not have enough clout to avoid their bubble bursting – outside of an impressive conference tournament. If Butler drops one of those games, it could lose focus knowing an at-large bid to the Big Dance isn’t in the cards.

Spot bets

Sizing up situational bets – no matter the sport – is a keen handicapping process. And this approach to wagering holds even more value when it comes to bubble teams down the stretch.

A team needing a notable win to puff up its March Madness chances can often times get caught looking past an unranked opponent on the weekday and ahead to their ranked foe on the weekend. The classic lookahead spot offers value in going against the bubble team in the game before a big season-defining showdown.

Syracuse can tighten its hold on a spot among the NCAA field with a win at No. 6 North Carolina on the leap-year February 29. But before the Orange head to Chapel Hill to face the Tar Heels, they host North Carolina State at the Carrier Dome Saturday. The Wolfpack aren’t earning an at-large bid – and know it – and would love to spoil their ACC rivals’ tournament chances, especially with SU looking ahead to the clash with UNC.

Bubble teams can also be very susceptible to the letdown spot in their pursuit of a postseason place. Teams coming off a matchup with a ranked opponent – win or lose – run the risk of coming down off that high and playing flat in their next outing. Bubble teams losing to a ranked foe feel like their season is shot and teams coming off a win against a big-name opponent can have a false sense of accomplishment.

Texas Tech is on the bubble in the Big 12 and can either launch itself into the hearts of the selection committee or spoil its postseason hopes with two massive road games with Kansas and West Virginia ahead on the calendar. Following those ranked foes, the Red Raiders wrap conference play at home versus Kansas State. Win or lose against KU and WVU, the date with the Wildcats could be a cookie-cutter letdown look against Texas Tech.

Home/Away

Not that teams need much extra motivation when resting firm on the bubble in the closing games of the schedule, but having a healthy dose of hometown love never hurts.

Unlike in pro basketball, where home and away splits are a slight difference in the stats, college basketball teams can be completely different squads when taking their home court compared to playing in the role of visitor. And, more often than not, teams on the NCAA bubble are the ones who display that disparity in venue.

The Wisconsin Badgers enjoy one of the largest home-court advantages in all the land at the Kohl Center, but unfortunately the Big Ten schedule makers loaded their closing contests with road dates. Wisconsin, which is 12-5 SU in Madison but just 4-4 SU as a visitor, plays three of its final four games away from home, including a Wednesday game at Iowa. Following senior night versus Michigan Sunday, the Badgers are at Minnesota and Purdue the following week.

On the other side of this angle, a popular mid-major program has a home-heavy slate to close the year. Everyone’s favorite sideline show, Monmouth, is dancing on the bubble for an at-large bid out of the Metro Atlantic. The Hawks have resume wins over Notre Dame, Southern Cal, UCLA and Georgetown, but a lackluster conference effort has them biting their nails about a tourney invite, even more so after to losing to Iona last week. Monmouth does have its final two games at home – versus Rider and Niagara – where it is 8-1 SU on the season.

Experience

February is when a lot of teams hit the wall. Programs depending on freshmen to carry the team into the postseason could be playing with fire as first-year players aren’t used to the long grind of the college season, coupled with travel and school work.

That’s not to say freshmen won’t step up – that class is now always the most talented crop of players in the country (thanks to the NBA’s one-year rule) and AAU play keeps high school kids busy all year round. However, big-game experience and knowing what it takes to pull out wins against the odds is something that only comes from veteran programs.

Battling the bubble before is also something basketball bettors should consider. Were this year’s bubble teams in the same position in 2015, and how did they respond? A rotten taste from past Selection Sundays can often be motivation to not get left out again.

Washington boasts one of the youngest teams in the country with a roster rich in freshmen and sophomores (seven and five respectively). The Huskies are barely clinging to the bubble out of the Pac-12 having snapped a four-game slide with a victory over Stanford, improving to 8-7 in conference play. Washington hit that aforementioned wall face first and has two tough tests at Oregon State and Oregon before finishing up versus Washington State at home. There might not be much left in the tank for Lorenzo Romar’s kids, even with the motivation of being on the bubble.

As for a team battling the bubble for a second straight year, Pittsburgh is finding life in the ACC a little more difficult than the Big East. The Panthers were in a similar spot in 2014-15, heading into the final two weeks with a shot at an at-large bid. However, they choked and finished the schedule on a three-game losing slide, souring the selection committee and settling for an early exit in both the ACC tournament and NIT.

This year, Jamie Dixon is suffering from déjà vu with his program currently on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament, according to many analysis. Pittsburgh has a chance to avoid another late-season swoon and disappointing finish with big home games versus Louisville and Duke, and two road stops at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. A win over the Cardinals or Blue Devils may be enough, but the Panthers won’t be taking any chances after the sting of last season.