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Handicapping Mid-Major Tournaments

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/04/2008

It’s hard to believe that tournament basketball is finally here! Several mid major tournaments start this week, with the winners earning automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Everybody else has their tournaments the following week.

A year ago at this time I outlined some suggestions for handicapping the mid majors. These tournaments have a different atmosphere because so few teams can count on getting an at large bid. You’re going to see some very intense basketball! I’m not going to write up a new version of that piece. But I do want to quickly review those themes. They matter just as much this year as they did last year:

*The TOP teams bring peak intensity because they just can’t afford a loss. It’s safer to play favorites in these events because so much is stake for the top seeds. Upsets are much more common in the major tournaments where top seeds are already locked into the Dance. Betting against mid major powers is a dicey proposition at best.

*Depth is very important because teams are playing big games on consecutive days. Short rotations fade from fatigue. Deep teams are able to handle the gauntlet.

*Inside basketball trumps outside basketball most of the time. For every game where a team happens to get hot from long range, there are two where the power teams are dominant. Focus on defense and rebounding when comparing teams in a matchup.

*Bad guard play will kill you, but good guard play won’t necessarily win any games. The media tends to overrate the impact of guards in tournament action, and underestimate the impact of the inside men. Don’t bet on a team just because they’ve got a star guard. It’s okay to bet against teams who are weak at guard.

*Look to play UNDERS in the first half and full game whenever good defenses or slow tempos are on the court. When those factors are in play on a NEUTRAL court, scoring really plummets.
Okay, you should know that stuff by now anyway if you’re a serious handicapper. I’d like to add these elements to your handicapping arsenal…

*Study how all tournament teams performed in their conference ROAD games. This is usually a great indicator for playoff performance. Some teams who look pretty good in their full season numbers just padded their stats by winning blowouts at home. Unless they’re hosting the tournament, they’re probably going to underachieve expectations in the tourneys. This particular truth has helped me pick winners for many years. It also works great with college bowl games. Throw out home performances when studying neutral site games. Regular season “road warriorsâ€쳌 typically do very well in tournaments.

*Make sure you pay close attention to the turnover category as you study past boxscores, and “read and reactâ€쳌 once the tournament is under way. Teams with turnover problems will typically see those magnified in tournaments because the officials don’t blow as many whistles. Players have to learn to maintain possession when getting hacked or pushed. The refs just aren’t going to bail them out. One reason scoring goes down in tournaments is that more possessions are ending with turnovers instead of free throws. Teams who are prone to losing the ball anyway often have disastrous results. They’ll score in the high 40’s or 50’s rather than the 60’s or higher. Look to take the opponent and the Under whenever a sloppy team is playing in a neutral floor in a tourney.

*Remember that teams who live by the three die by the three…which means that any team that just won a big game by making a bunch of treys is about to fall back to earth with a thud. Some of my biggest winners in recent years have come on day two of a tournament because I knew a first round winner had played way over their heads. This one factor can trump everything else. There’s just no way to maintain red hot shooting over a period of games. And, there’s no way to win if you’re having a horrible day from behind the arc. Successful tournament handicapping consists of both pre-tourney preparation and “in the momentâ€쳌 analysis. Either will make you money. Mastering both will make you A LOT of money!

Some of today’s issues will also be important in the major tournaments down the road. But, I wanted to point them out to you here because the mid-major conferences can have a lot of variance from top to bottom. There’s more consistency in the majors because of the caliber of athletes. When you’re talking about the Horizon Conference, or the Sun Belt, or the Ohio Valley, you’ll see BIG differences in depth, road play, inside strength, turnover tendencies, and three-point shooting streaks. That leads to some extreme results against conservative Las Vegas pointspreads that are based on full season averages. Double digit covers are common. Finding them ahead of time isn’t very difficult if you’re studying the right indicators!

Next week I’ll discuss some specifics for handicapping the major tournaments. Then we’ll move on to strategies for the NCAA tournament. This is always one of the most exciting handicapping months in the calendar year. I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am!

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