Next Man Up: Accounting for Injuries in College Basketball Betting

Malik Osborne #10 of the Florida State Seminoles. Justin Casterline/Getty Images/AFP

An injury can derail a college basketball team’s plans for a season. It also creates opportunities and potential pitfalls for gamblers. Accounting for an injury or illness to a key player is not simple arithmetic—just subtracting his production. It’s a delicate chemistry experiment.

The best-laid plans of college basketball teams can be foiled by a key injury to a top player. No one has demonstrated that this season more than Florida State.

In late January, the Seminoles had won six straight and were near the top of the ACC at 6-2, 13-5 overall. Since then, FSU has seen three starters lost for the season in Malik Osborne (ankle), Naheem McLeod (hand), and Anthony Polite (wrist).

Several other players have missed games with injury and, when leading scorer Caleb Mills went down last game, Florida State finished the contest with several walk-ons on the floor. “This is a rarity,” said coach Leonard Hamilton. “We’ve had more injuries in the last two weeks than we’ve had the last eight years.”

It’s shown up on the court as well, as the Noles have lost six straight to fall out of contention in the ACC. Injuries are important to track for gamblers, as well. If a top player isn’t available for a game, it changes the betting odds significantly.

Studies have shown that analytics sites like KenPom, Bart Torvik, and Sagarin, while usually very accurate in predicting outcomes, underperform significantly when a key player is injured. Sportsbooks are certainly paying attention to injuries, so it behooves bettors to do so as well, but how best to account for an injury to a star? It may not be as straightforward as it seems.

Lifting the Buick

UCLA’s Johnny Juzang is a candidate for national player of the year and leads the Bruins in scoring at 17.9 ppg. He also contributes more than five rebounds a night and is one of UCLA’s top outside shooters. Clearly, he’s a player the Bruins need to have in the lineup, but, in late January, just as Florida State was imploding on the other side of the country, Juzang entered COVID protocols and had to miss back-to-back games.

UCLA was favored by 16 points against Cal and 13.5 against Stanford, both at home. It would seem, on the surface, that the smart bet would be on UCLA not covering against the two conference foes since the Bruins’ top player is sidelined.

Instead, UCLA hammered Cal, 81-57, then throttled Stanford, 66-43. David Singleton, who had played just 45 minutes total in the previous four games, had 30 and 27 minutes of high-energy play in Juzang’s absence. Jake Kyman, who had played 54 minutes and scored 10 points all year logged 49 minutes and scored 25 points in the games.

“I think it was really just a next-man-up mentality,” said Jaime Jaquez. “I’ve said this before; I think we have a really deep team and when guys have opportunities, they step up.”

You’ve probably heard stories of the mom who lifted a Buick off of her young child. In emergency situations, people often do things that seem almost impossible, like lifting a car or doubling your season’s points output in one game.

Teams that know they’re a man down entering a game often pull together. New heroes step up, are given an opportunity to shine, and play at the top of their game. You can often expect a team to play out of their mind for the first game or two following an injury.

But Buicks Are Heavy

Of course, after the mom lifts the Buick and saves her kid, if you ask her to do it again in three days, and then two more times next week, she’s probably going to throw out her back in an effort to budge it. Those bench players were logging limited minutes for a reason. In the four games since his Cal and Stanford heroics, Kyman has played 12 minutes, scoring a total of two points.

Over the long run, an injury to a key player will hurt a team. The temporary burst of energy a team gets from banding together against adversity wears off, and the lack of production begins to negatively affect the team.

Reentry Problems

Juzang returned to the lineup after those two games and all was right with the world. Except it wasn’t. Since Juzang’s return, UCLA has lost three of four games, including a three-overtime shocker to Arizona State. The lone win was against Stanford, the team the Bruins beat by 23 without Juzang. They won by nine with him.

Part of the problem has been Juzang, who has shot just 4-of-16 from three and turned it over nine times in four games. Part of the problem has been the other players, who stepped up in his absence. Peyton Watson hit 6-of-12 from the field in the two games without Juzang. He’s 1-of-6 since. Jaquez was 8-of-14 in the two games, he hasn’t hit more than half his shots in a game since, going 2-for-11 in the last loss to USC.

Players who miss games due to health also miss practice time, and adding them back into the lineup is a delicate chemistry experiment that frequently takes time to get back to normal. It impacts the injured player, who missed time on the practice floor, as well as his teammates, who saw their roles change to cover for him and now must find their new roles with him back on the floor with them.

Not Simple Math

Injuries aren’t an arithmetic problem. You can’t just subtract the player who will miss time, then add him back in once he’s recovered. There are emotional considerations, both when the player goes down and when he returns.