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Scheduling & Rivalry Spots

   by Bryan Leonard - 02/02/2007

There are many different kinds of rivalry games in college basketball. The one most talked about is two teams in the same conference. They meet twice during the regular season, and many times again in conference tournament play in early March. Duke/North Carolina and UConn/Pitt would be two obvious examples.

But there are other kinds, too. Teams in the same state or the same geographic region can develop a rivalry. Rivalries can also be tied in, from a handicapping perspective, as a BIG game on the schedule, or one that has extra meaning. Defending national champion Florida, for instance, was scheduled in November to play Kansas on a neutral court. There is no regular play between the teams, but it is a non-conference game with importance for the players as they got to test how good they are against a top-flight opponent. In short, it's not just like any other game, it has extra significance, even if it's outside of conference play.

It's not just with big-name programs, either. It happens all the time with lesser-known schools, you just have to know how to identify it. A team creeping into the Top 20 for the first time in years, for instance, could face one of these big games the next time they play a quality opponent. If you find players talking about how they want to prove that they deserve their high rank against a strong team, that shows that the upcoming tilt has great importance to them.

I used this angle when Gonzaga played Stanford this week. It was more of an emotionally-focused game for Gonzaga, but one that was an emotional down spot for Stanford, a perfect handicapping mix. At the time, Stanford was riding high as they recently entered the top 25 with victories over conference rivals USC and UCLA. The UCLA win was very impressive as they trailed the Bruins 37-25 at halftime only to dominate the second half.

Stanford proved themselves in that big game. However, the break in the schedule found them stepping out of conference to host Gonzaga, before they headed back into Pac 10 action against Cal, Washington State and Washington. They have revenge for a 4-point loss at home to the Bears, as well. In the extremely tough Pac 10 conference, those games mean more than playing non-conference Gonzaga.

The Zags, on the other hand, have been pointing to the Stanford game as a big one against a team from a power conference. The Bulldogs get little competition in their own league, with St Mary's being the only WAC team to defeat them this year. With Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount (yawn) on deck, it was clear Stanford would get Gonzaga's full attention.

Why? Gonzaga doesn't back down from playing tough schools as evidenced by their early season schedule. They traveled to Georgia and Virginia, as well as facing Texas, Duke, North Carolina, Butler and Nevada on neutral courts. I also saw that the Bulldogs were the far better shooting team, in addition to having the schedule in their favor. I gave out Gonzaga as a dog expecting a hard fought, close game, and the Zags not only covered but won, 90-86.

In my pre-game analysis I noted, “Take the points with the Bulldogs as they once again put themselves on the NCAA map.â€쳌 The key is to identify these situational rivalry or BIG GAME spots before they happen, which is the essence of profitable handicapping!

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