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Major Conference Tourneys

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/05/2007

The last time we were together, I went over some strategies for handicapping mid-major tournaments. This week, it's time to look at the major conference events. There are some dramatic differences when we step up in class. You just can't handicap these games the same way you did last week's contests.

Here are some suggestions:

*Remember that the elite teams, those likely to be #1, #2, or #3 seeds in the Big Dance have had a horrible history in recent years in conference tournaments. They're all looking ahead to the NCAA tournament. They know there's no reason to kill themselves over three straight days this week when the games that really matter are just a few days away.

The head coaches won't admit it. In fact, they'll deny it. The players will talk about how thrilling it would be to cut down the nets at the end of the weekend. It all makes for great public relations for the sport. But if you study the actual results, it's very clear that the elite teams don't perform as well as expected either straight up or against the spread.

That means you've got to focus on underdogs, particularly those of seven points or less. Time and time again you'll see prominent favorites get knocked off in those price ranges. You should be looking at moneyline plays as well because underdog victories are so common. The wagering public has had the hardest time accepting this in recent seasons. That's why the lines aren't dropping as fast as they should be.

You know, if you just followed a blanket strategy of taking all small to medium underdogs in the "big six" tournaments (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 10, SEC), you'll probably be happy with the results.

*Remember that elite teams have a lot of scoring options, so playing Unders in these tournaments is a bit more dangerous. It's best to pick your spots with the conferences that are clearly slowing things down and playing halfcourt basketball. These games always seem to stay Under, even if they go overtime! Just be careful assuming all the games will be like this.

Focus on the teams who played slow tempos in the regular season. Focus on teams who lack depth, because they're most likely to try and shorten the games if they've got to play three times in three days. You can find some great Unders this way. Just read the boxscores and take note of teams who only go six or seven players deep in their rotation. If you see a couple of teams who spread the minutes around to everyone, it's okay to take an Over there. The game likely won't slow down, and you may get a bunch of late points on free throws, too.

*Beware of the bubble teams. The TV networks will devote a lot of time to telling you who needs to win to make sure they'll get an invitation to the NCAA tournament. In recent years, this has been a kiss of death. The lines go up because the public bets on "need." The players play very tight because they know what's at stake. The opponents rise to the occasion because it's fun to play spoiler. Boom! another favorite loses, and the announcers have to start pleading that they deserve to be in the tournament anyway.

You won't see that once in the next week, you'll see it at least a half dozen times. Don't forget that these teams wouldn't be on the bubble in the first place if they could win games on command. Put them under pressure on a neutral court and it's far from a sure thing that they can get a victory, let alone a cover.

*Focus on the paint rather than the arc. By that, I mean that you should be looking to make Las Vegas wagers on teams that go inside and attack the basket. You will see a few games where a team shoots lights out from long range and scores an impressive victory. It's very hard to do that two games in a row against inspired opponents on neutral courts. Winning ugly is much more consistent, particularly because teams that know how to rebound have a big edge in close games.

One of the strongest edges you can have in the tournaments is knowing when to go against a team that played over its head the previous day. The public wants to take them because they looked like a hot team that's peaking at the right time. This will keep the line in check, and you can score an easy cover when the bombs stop falling.

For my money, this is annually the most exciting week of college basketball. I know everyone loves the first four days of the NCAA tournament. During the major conference tournaments though, you've got all the best teams in the country squaring off in exciting games (often rivalry games to boot). And, you've got additional mid-major and smaller conference tournaments that provide thrillers as well. There aren't enough TVs to watch all the upsets and exciting finishes. If you play it right, it will be the most exciting, and potentially profitable week of your entire basketball season. Best of luck!

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