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Handicapping Mid-Major Tournaments

   by Scott Spreitzer - 02/27/2007

Yes, it's already time to handicap mid-major tournament action in college basketball! Here's the upcoming schedule of smaller conference tourneys:

Tuesday February 27
Horizon Tournament begins
Ohio Valley Tournament begins

Wednesday February 28
Sun Belt Tournament begins
Southern Conference Tournament begins

Thursday March 1
Missouri Valley Tournament begins

Friday March 1
West Coast Conference Tournament begins
Metro Atlantic Tournament begins

I'll be giving you some tips today for handicapping these types of mid major events. When I return next week, we'll look at some different strategies that will apply to the major conference tourneys that get rolling the following week. Remember before reading the following: Most mid-major tourneys play their first postseason game on the higher seed's home floor.

Keys to remember for the mid-majors:

*The superior teams in these conferences typically do a good job of winning and covering. Very few regular season champions can assume they'll get an at-large invitation to the Big Dance if they don't win the tourney. In fact, it's true in most of the mid majors that only the tournament champion will get a bid. In recent years, we've seen the top teams play their best basketball when needed.

I'm not saying that all the favorites are going to cover. My point is that upsets and nailbiter finishes are much less common here than in the major conferences. In marquee leagues, you'll find some national powers going what seems to be about three-quarter speed through the conference tournament because they don't want to kill themselves right before the Dance. They can afford to play it that way. Mid major powers can't!

Playing on favorites can be justified at value prices on neutral courts with regular season champions. We've seen time and time again in recent seasons that they'll be laying 5-7 points, and they'll win by 8-10, or more. This is not a time to make upset calls.

*Depth is always a big factor in postseason tournaments. Winners have to come back and play the next day. The starters get tired and the bench has to produce. Take some time to study recent boxscores of participating teams to see how many minutes the bench usually gets. If the starters gobble up all the minutes, you probably don't want to back that team the day after a win. If the minutes are spread out amongst 8-9 guys, then this is a great team to take right after a win. They'll have the arsenal to keep their good form going. I've found that differences in depth are much greater in the mid majors than the majors. You'll be able to find some strong edges here.

*Remember that "smash mouth" basketball beats perimeter basketball more often than not on neutral courts. Teams who rely on the three-pointer often post very impressive home court results during the regular season. In the postseason, they may not be used to the shooting backdrop, and the shots don't fall as readily. They also run into inspired defenses, and the pressure of trying to win a trophy. With all that in play, you want the team that plays better in the paint. Closer shots have a better chance of falling. Teams who attack the basket earn more cheap points at the free throw line. I've found in recent years that "inside" teams will win and cover against "outside" teams about two-thirds of the time. You've just got to swallow the third that don't get there and live with it. A lot of mid major programs have embraced the perimeter game as a way to generate excitement. It may sell tickets at home, but it doesn't win neutral court playoff games against superior opposition.

*Guard play is important, but not as important as hyped. For decades TV announcers have talked about how important it is to have good guards in the postseason. I'm not going to disagree with that. I just think it's at least as important to have good rebounders, and good inside scoring. The better way to think of it is to say that bad guard play will kill you! You just can't advance in tournament play if you're turning the ball over. To me, teams with good guards put themselves in position to win, then it's up to the power game to win. You should strongly penalize teams with poor guard play in your handicapping. Go against them with confidence in neutral court pressure games. Just don't blindly take all teams with good guards. This is a category were weakness definitely inspires go-against action, but strength doesn't mean an automatic take.

*Take Unders when two good defensive teams square off. This has been particularly profitable in recent seasons in the mid-major tourneys. Oddsmakers have had big troubles getting the totals in the right place when good defenses face each other on a neutral court in a playoff atmosphere. Both offenses play patiently, trying to get off a good shot. Both defenses stop it from happening. The neutral court atmosphere doesn't help tempo because the arenas aren't full, and the shooters aren't familiar with the baskets anyway. If tempo did pick up, the kids would still miss their shots.

If you've got a game matching two good defenses, plan on taking the Under in the first half, and for the full game. You can hit as high as 75% of your plays in this category if you're evaluating the defenses properly. Frankly, you won't even have to sweat many of the winners. Vegas is getting better as time goes on. They've still got a long way to go.

Best of luck with this week's mid-major tournaments. We'll talk again soon about the showcase tourneys that are just around the corner.

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