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Will Butler Do it? Can Braves Keep Covering First Halves?...By S. H. Austin

One of the strongest bets in college basketball this year has been to take the Butler Braves against the spread in the first halves of their games. It's been a topic of discussion in the Mess Hall for a few weeks (spearheaded by poster "Praesto"). But, its last time out, Butler failed to cover the first half in a surprisingly one-sided loss to surging Wright State.

Was that a case of a "streak" starting to regress to the mean? Was that a case of a great team just having a flat game? Or, maybe Wright State has gotten so good lately that the Butler mojo wouldn't work on them. What should handicappers do?

*If a streak is going to regress to the mean, then it's time to start going against Butler in their remaining first halves.

*If Butler was just flat for a game, then you'd want to go back to taking the Braves figuring they'll return to form.

*If Saturday's loss was just a case of running into a surging team, same deal. Butler is likely to go back to covering first halves against weaker opposition.

How do we know what's right? And, what if there's something more subtle in play that isn't as simple as "Butler's a first half team" or "the laws of math are about to catch up?" Maybe head coach Todd Lickliter places a special emphasis on starting quickly to a degree that's not being reflected in the Vegas lines.

I started by looking at what Butler's been doing in league play. It was really after Horizon conference action began that wagerers began to notice this tendency. I wanted to see what the actual numbers looked like. A pattern showed itself very quickly.

Butler is a dominant team in its conference this year. The Braves have been favored by either 14, 15, or 16 points EVERY time they've played at home in league action. Here's a look at the full game pointspreads in those outings, followed by the first half score in each game.

Butler (-14) vs. Cleveland State...won first half 35-22
Butler (-15) vs. Wright State...won first half 36-20
Butler (-16) vs. Youngstown State...won first half 42-18
Butler (-14) vs. Wisconsin Green Bay...won first half 45-26
Butler (-15) vs. Illinois Chicago...won first half 39-16
Butler (-16) vs. Wisconsin-Milwaukee...won 34-18

Again, the pointspreads you see are for the full game, but the scores represent just 20 minutes of play. Note how often Butler was right at the full game spread or better at halftime. Butler would have gone 4-1-1 ATS against those high spreads in just a half of basketball!

First half pointspreads are typically about 50-55% of the full game spread. Butler obliterated those thresholds in every single home conference game.

That's a starting point. So, I went back to see what Butler did in its other home games as double digit favorites. Clearly we have some evidence that Butler grabs games by the throat against blowout fodder. If this is a characteristic of the head coach's philosophy, handicappers can make great use of the knowledge.

Butler (-13) vs. Ball State...won first half 35-17
Butler (-11) vs. Evansville...won 37-30
Butler (NL) vs. South Dakota State...won 33-14

Same story. South Dakota State was a non board game that came amidst league play. That's now nine times out of nine home court possibilities where Butler covered their first half line (or would have had SDSU been on the board). Only the Evansville first half wasn't a rout.

The margins of victory suggest this isn't something random. Butler clearly emphasizes getting off to hot starts on its home floor against lesser competition. They make it a top priority, every time!

What about road games? Here's what has happened so far in league play away from home. The earlier list was chronological, as I was just copying the results from the schedule. Since we're now focusing on the caliber of opposition, I've re-arranged the opponents so that the games are ranked by the size of the pointspread. This will help us eyeball possibilities in terms of this tendency. If Butler is just a universally great first half team, the lines won't matter. But, if the caliber of opponent is an issue, we may see something in how the chart breaks down.

Butler (-11) at Wisconsin-Milwaukee...tied 19-19 (ATS loss)
Butler (-10) at Cleveland State...won first half 45-25
Butler (-8) at Youngstown State...won first half 39-23
Butler (-5) at Illinois Chicago...lost first half 15-22 (ATS loss)
Butler (-4) at Wright State...lost first half 27-35 (ATS loss)
Butler (-4) at Detroit...won first half 38-24
Butler (-2) at Loyola...won first half 35-27

Butler didn't fare very well at Wisconsin-Milwaukee as a big favorite. They did cover the next two in a blowout fashion that looked very similar to those earlier home games. Butler managed to impress at some of the smaller spreads as well.

Clearly we have enough evidence now to draw some conclusions.

*Butler obviously emphasizes first half play. It's a characteristic of the team, the way height or speed can be a characteristic of a team. It's in the nature of this coach to go for the jugular early.

*Butler is able to do this consistently well against lesser opposition. At home, they've basically been UNIVERSALLY able to do it against lesser competition.

*Butler is a bit less likely to have fast starts on the road. Surely they want to, it's just more difficult to pull off.

*Pointspreads have very little chance of lining up with this reality unless oddsmakers start putting full game lines up as the first half lines. And, even then, Butler would be 8-4-1 ATS in first halves in conference play this year against their full game lines! It boggles the mind that such a heavy favorite could pull that off so often.

Let's look at the brief remaining schedule to see if there will be ways to take advantage of this knowledge.

Board games remaining:
2/17 vs. Southern Illinois (at home in a non-conference Bracket Buster game)
2/19 at Wisconsin Green Bay
2/22 vs. Loyola Chicago
2/24: vs. Detroit

The best fit if Butler follows its current tendency would be those last two home games of the regular season vs. Loyola and Detroit. Percentages do favor a cover at Wisconsin Green Bay as well, but success has come less often on the road. Note also that this encounter comes just two days after the Bracket Buster game versus Southern Illinois. It's a potential flat spot for the Braves depending on what happens Saturday.

What about Saturday? Southern Illinois will be the toughest team to visit Bradley this season. They may have the talent it takes to counteract the early surge.

Let's go back to the strategies outlined at the top...

*Riding the tendency would seem prudent given what we know now, particularly in those last two games of the season.

*Going against Butler while anticipating a regression to the mean doesn't seem like a great approach. There's just no evidence yet that this will happen in home blowout situations. It might work against Southern Illinois or Wisconsin Green Bay.

A possible approach would be a graduated effort that puts more weight on the projected home blowouts:

1-unit on Butler in the first half vs. Southern Illinois 1-unit on Butler in the first half at Wisconsin Green Bay (but 2-units if Butler is upset by Southern Illinois 2-units on Butler in the first half vs. Loyola 2-units on Butler in the first half vs. Detroit

If Butler suddenly hits a wall and plays lousy first halves, you could just stop after two games having only dropped two units. People riding this tendency are up a lot more than two units the last few weeks! Personally, I'd still consider taking a flyer on the Braves at home against Loyola even if they did drop the next two games. Those first half home margins are just too big to ignore right now.

There are no sure things in sports. Butler could theoretically start looking ahead to the Horizon Conference tournament. Butler could get arrogant because things have been so easy against weak league opponents. It will interesting to see what develops in the next two weeks. Be sure to check in the Mess Hall at daily for all the latest news, notes, and opinions from our respected posters!

S.H. Austin

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