Basketball handicapping 101

Over the past two years I’ve run a college basketball pool for some of the poker/fantasy football group. We each post an entry fee and then pick five college basketball games each week against the spread. The winner and runner-up split the pot.

In a desperate effort to avoid repeating my futile and embarrassing performance, I started developing my strategy early this year. Like, a week ago. After re-reading a book on sports betting, I calculated my own power rating for each of the 351 NCAA teams in order to cipher point spreads for each game.

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

There was an interesting blog entry on Kenpom.com recently about the differences in home court advantage between teams. At the end of the day, Pomeroy said you can’t calculate this with much certainty, then he proceeded to list his HCA for each team. Which feels like a tease. But, like any degen gambler, I’m going to ignore his warnings and use it as an adjustment anyway. At least for a few weeks to see how it goes.

I also decided to concentrate on four conferences. Big Ten, since I watch a lot of those games anyway. And then three mid-major leagues in the Missouri Valley, Mid-American, and Ohio Valley. I’m hoping that the point spreads won’t be as accurate for the smaller schools. I don’t plan on betting any games where the sportsbooks’ spread is close to mine; I’m looking for games where there’s a disparity.

So I plan to post some of my spreads for games in these pages. If I start winning, maybe I’ll finally get my dream job: hanging around Churchill Downs and giving my selections to other people to bet on.

For Friday, November 10, here are the spreads I’ve calculated:

Indiana minus 16 vs. Indiana State

Southern Illinois plus 5.5 at Winthrop

Ball State even at Dayton

Miami (Ohio) plus 4 at Fordham

Bowling Green plus 9 at Drexel

Missouri State minus 2 at Western Kentucky 

                                                                                        *****

With the opening of basketball season, it’s time for me to start showing up at book fairs and basketball tournaments to try to sell some books while avoiding eye contact with strangers. First up is the Christmas Hobby and Gift Show November 8-12 at the Indiana Fairgrounds.

Other writers have told me that this is a great venue for local authors, and especially books about sports. The attendance skews heavily female, and one guy told me that they frequently want to buy books for husbands/fathers/sons so they’ll read more. Because men are dumb and have short attention spans. So I’m hoping I can get rid of the last copies I have to sell. I’ve been thinking more lately about another book, and selling out* would get me to the break-even point financially.

I think I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process, but I’m still not willing to write on topics just because a book might be a money-maker. Writing fiction would be convenient, because I could do it all from home. But even though I don’t need book sales to make a living, I would like for at least a few people besides my family to buy copies. I’ve also been reading a lot of Richard Russo lately (“Nobody’s Fool”, “Everybody’s Fool”, “Bridge of Sighs”, etc.) who sets the bar impossibly high for fiction. That guy is just so good, I feel like anything I could write would be embarrassingly bad by comparison.

My sports-themed book idea would require a lot of travel. Fun, but expensive. My other non-fiction idea is completely removed from sports, so maybe I’ll go that way.    

 

*Selling out of books, yo. I’ll never sell out on certain strongly-held positions. Like opposition to the designated hitter rule, or the superiority of rye bread over white.

  Rye_bread,_Poznan,_Poland

 

Gambling for writers and writing for gamblers

I was talking to a couple of Muslim friends the other day about Islamic restrictions on food and behavior. First, I asked one to explain what makes meat halal (permitted) for Muslims. He made sure I understood that pork was never allowed, and that there were no restrictions on seafood. Since his English is still rudimentary, he struggled to explain what made beef and lamb halal, then finally resorted to making a slashing motion across his throat and making a “ckkkkkk” sound. Which was clear enough, though it occurred to me that this explanation would result in a 15-yard penalty in the NFL.

Then we talked about Islamic prohibitions against gambling. (For some reason many of my conversations end up as gambling discussions. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. (Nothing to see here….move off the corner, Johnny.) They told me that gambling is haram (forbidden) because the winner “doesn’t deserve” the money, having acquired it without working.

Some of my non-Catholic friends belong to Christian traditions that also frown on gambling. They’ve explained to me that they consider it a waste of God-given resources, or that they consider a gambler to have the same motivation as a thief; that is. to get money by way of deceit.

I’m not arguing against anybody’s religious beliefs here, just trying to understand the rationale. For me, gambling has always been more about the competition than the money. Which is why slot machines don’t interest me. In poker and sportsbetting, you’re usually rewarded for making good decisions. I love the feeling of having figured out a team’s value or what cards an opponent’s holding. It’s not unlike solving a crossword puzzle. Sometimes luck enters into it, but that’s true with all games and sports.

256px-craps

I can’t say winning money isn’t a part of the thrill; otherwise, I wouldn’t like craps so much. And I confess that playing online poker with free chips generally bores me. (Though the lack of value to focus my mind is only part of the problem there. It also causes people to play recklessly, like they don’t care about the outcome. Which reduces any enjoyment of the competitiveness aspect.)

I’m well aware of the social cost of compulsive gambling. I know it’s destroyed families and ruined lives. But one could point to a lot of innocuous activities that have done the same thing when there is a lack of moderation and balance.

                                                      *****

It’s been a long time since I wrote any fiction (insert cynical journalism joke here), but my publisher is having a 24-hour short story contest this weekend. They announce the theme at noon on Saturday and the story is due by the same time on Sunday. I’m used to cobbling together short narratives under pressure. When I was covering minor league baseball, I had to have the story mostly written by the end of the game since my deadline was usually 30 minutes after the last pitch.

If I was lucky, there was no late-inning rally that would force a re-write. After the final out, I’d hustle down to the clubhouse and stand outside the door, waiting for expiration of the league-mandated ten minute “cooling off” period. (Sometimes I cheated when the game ran long. It wasn’t usually a big deal if I was interviewing players on the winning team; if not, I had to step a bit more lightly.) Then I’d enter the clubhouse and try to quickly find a player who’d affected the outcome.

wallace_reid_and_his_cat

Unless he’d had a good game, the player would invariably hide in the training room, off-limits to the press. Nervously checking the time, I’d then try to develop alternate questions for another player, and then go try to get the manager to say something interesting. Something other than a) “we just got/didn’t get timely hits”, b) “our pitchers were locating/not locating the fastball”, or c) “I was pleased with the effort”.

I’d then run up to the press box, taking stairs two at a time (the elevator was too slow), type in the quotes, scan the story quickly for obvious errors, and send it. One time on my drive home from the ballpark, I suddenly realized that the whole point of my lead – that a left-handed pitcher had dominated a right-handed lineup – was wrong. Because the pitcher was right-handed. Luckily, that was a day game, so I had time to call the editor, kill the story and re-write it.

So I’m used to writing with strict time limits, but, being fiction, this will be different. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and if I think my story is any good (or if I run out of blog ideas) I’ll post it here. If you’re a writer (or, I guess, even if you’re not) and want to submit an entry, you can enter at http://24hourshortstorycontest.com/ for $5. There are cash prizes for the winners, so it’ll be easier to focus. Just like if you were gambling.  

 

You oughta write a book

I used to think that if you published a book, you could count on spending a lot of time in limousines going to interviews, attending signing events, and leveraging studios against each other for the movie rights. In my case, I think I’d insist on filming the the whole thing in Aruba. A really creative director could overcome the obvious obstacle that the book is set in Indiana.

But when I started researching the marketing process, I quickly found out that unless you’re already famous, most of the responsibility for selling books falls on the author. Actually, since Thirty-Two Minutes in March was produced by a print-on-demand publisher, all of the responsibility falls on me. But friends who’ve worked with traditional publishing houses tell me their marketing support is minimal. The publisher might set up a couple of signing events and send out a press release, but unless you’re John Grisham or Lady Gaga, you’re mostly on your own.

(Note to self: email Lady Gaga about ghost-writing her autobiography. If successful, insert obscure references in the text that make fun of Purdue basketball.)

It’s hard to fault the publishing companies for their lack of support. There are something like a million books printed every year. If they aggressively marketed every product, they’d need thousands of salespeople for the effort. And books aren’t the primary entertainment source they used to be, so each tome competes for an ever-shrinking audience.

Pete Cava has two books out through traditional publishers, and while I was writing the book we met for lunch a few times so I could get some advice. Every time we discussed marketing, Pete would pause, look over his glasses at me and say “Matt – you gotta put yourself out there.”   

For a closet introvert like me, this doesn’t come easily. (A closet introvert being somebody who is embarrassed about being an introvert.) I went to one of Pete’s signing events, and he graciously introduced me to the owner of the store and told her about my book. She gave me a business card and asked me to email her with the details. I just nodded, said “OK, I will. Thanks.”

When we were out on the sidewalk, my wife Theresa turned to face me.

“Why didn’t you talk to her and tell her about the book? She was interested. You could have set up a signing right then…”

She’s right, of course. I’m just not used to selling a product, especially on the spur of the moment. And I’m probably overly sensitive to rejection. It’s easy for me to talk to dozens of people in a group setting and make jokes about buying the book as a shower gift. It’s much harder to stick out my hand, smile, make eye contact and ask a stranger to fork over $18.95 or make arrangements for me to hold an event.

The good news is that I’m getting used to it. I’ve found that I get a little jolt of satisfaction every time I sell a copy. Especially when a stranger buys one. Not that I don’t appreciate the family and friends who bought a copy. It’s just that I feel like they’re mostly doing me a favor. But when a stranger buys a copy, I mentally note a reduction in the gap between my costs and sales, and it really buoys my spirit.

My publisher (booklocker.com) provides authors with a 90-day plan for marketing books, which has been a big help. My family has also given me some great ideas.

Theresa suggested holding an eventfeaturing-the-center-grove-trojans at a coffee house near one of the schools, and I’ve set that up. My son Conor suggested a book release party at Fountain Square Brewery (where my son Patrick works), and that’s now on the schedule. (Buy a book and get a free pint of craft beer!) I’ve got other events at various stages of development, and I’m sure at least some of them will pan out. It’s gradually getting easier for me to “put myself out there”.

When I was getting started on this project, I told myself that I didn’t really care about sales. I was writing the book for my own satisfaction, and publishing it as a retirement gift to myself. Just seeing the thing in print was enough for me, and if, by chance, I sold enough copies to break even, I’d be gratified. As long as I could somehow arrange a tax-deductible trip to Las Vegas. (See you at the Nike Basketball Coaches Clinic in April!)

But it’s gradually become more important to me to sell copies. And it’s not even mostly about the money. I think it’s more about overcoming my reluctance to engage strangers and developing new skills as I age. Like Bill Farney said, “If you sit around, you get old.”

Well, the book is finished. What now?

Over the past two years, I’ve spent many hours researching, writing, revising, and publishing Thirty-Two Minutes in March. I could say it’s been an all-consuming task, wrenching me away from things I’d rather be doing, like charity work, babysitting grandkids, or perfecting my table tennis serve. But here’s a dirty little secret….. I’ve been using it to duck home improvement projects.

When I retired from my real job in 2015, I had already started on the book. Which means I was watching high school basketball games and interviewing coaches, players, and officials. And I was refereeing some basketball. Whenever I got the stinkeye from my still-employed wife Theresa about finally finishing up the flooring project, or touching up a paint job, or replacing the shutters, I had the book to fall back on.

When I heard the garage door open I’d jump up off the couch, change the TV channel from a Bar Rescue rerun to the local news, and try to get the faucet turned on in the kitchen  before Theresa got in the house. She’d walk in, struggling to get in the door with her computer bag, purse, and coat. Dumping her stuff on the table, she’d turn to me.

“So what did you do today?”

“Pretty hectic. Worked on the book all morning.”

“Any progress on the floor?”, she’d ask hopefully.

I’d shake my head and frown in regret as I industriously washed a cookie sheet.

“Naw, just ran out of time. This book and all, you know…”

So now, the book is done. I still have to try to sell it, but that’s mostly  evening and weekend work. How do I fill the days now? I know…..another book! A brand new, shiny project that won’t involve manual labor!

But writing books is hard. Somebody smarter than me once said that writing one is simple; all you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until tiny drops of blood form on your forehead. It’s not quite that bad, but still takes a lot of focus and energy. But a blog…..yeah….. a blog.

So here it is. I’ll mostly be writing about sports, but also other things that I hope interests other people. If you’d like an email alert when new posts are….uh….posted….click on the link below. You can also follow me on Twitter or Facebook and see post alerts there. I hope you’ll join me for this ride. Because we all know what a pain in the ass it is to paint ceilings.