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College Hoops Challenges Continue With Tourney

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/18/2008

Last week I talked about the weird year that fans were witnessing in college basketball. It was as if we had “Aâ€쳌 teams, and “Câ€쳌 teams, but nobody in between. If you watched the conference tournaments, you saw exactly what I was talking about. In fact, all the media could talk about on the first day of action was how all the mediocre bubble teams kept losing!

This odd class structure is going to create some challenges for handicappers who don’t react to the changing times.

*There are several teams in the Dance who wouldn’t have been good enough to make it in past seasons. It’s surprising how many teams kind of backed in this year by default.

*There are also a few teams who were good a month ago, but are now playing their worst basketball of the season.

*There are some teams who won their way into the Dance by playing way over their heads last weekend. They’re about to fall back to earth because you can’t play over your head forever.

In a way that I don’t recall ever seeing before, this is a year where picking winners is going to about focusing on the relatively small number of teams who can go out and execute on demand. A lot of offenses in the tournament have been blowing hot and cold lately. A lot of defenses in the tournament only seem to look good when opponents are missing all of their treys. Who can YOU find who will beat expectations because they will go out and get the job done?

Here are some tips:

*Look over conference tournament boxscores and find the teams that consistently played good defense. Some teams grabbed victories where they were allowing too high a shooting percentage, or not forcing many turnovers. Their luck will run out in the Dance. Impact defenses will force the action this week, and will make their own luck to a degree. Be sure to go back two weeks to study the mid-major events too. If darkhorses are going to spring from the gate…it’s going to be darkhorses who play defense.

*As you’re studying those boxscores, look at the offensive turnover category. I talked about this last week you’ll recall. This is a great stat for evaluating how well a team executes its offense (or how poorly). In a possession by possession tournament game, this stat will often be the tie-breaker that determines who wins and covers. There’s an old saw about how important great guard play is in the postseason. I tend to put more weight on the inside game myself. But, I do pay attention to guard play…and studying the turnover category is the best way to do that.

*Pay close attention to how teams are “trendingâ€쳌 lately. Anybody can have a hot shooting game. If a team is playing well over 8-10 games, then they’re much more likely to have something good going. If a team has slumped down the stretch, they’re not likely to suddenly find their confidence in the Dance. This worked out well in the conference tournaments, as a few slumping teams continued their recent spirals. The oddsmakers have been particularly weak at adjusting to recent form in my opinion. I want to emphasize though that I’m not talking about the last 2-3 games here. Some teams played over their heads last week. I’m looking to invest in teams who have picked up the pace over their last 8-10 games.

Success in the conference tournaments was very much tied to execution on both sides of the ball, and the direction of recent form. I don’t see why that’s going to change now.

Of course, some tried and true methods will still apply:

*Be wary of laying a lot of points in the first round with any team who cut down the nets this past weekend. It can be hard to get up for a weak opponent in front of a half empty arena when you just had a draining string of performances capped by a big celebration. If one of the teams you respect because of offensive and defensive execution is in this situation, wait until deeper in the tournament to back them.

*Look to take strong teams who had their conference tournaments end earlier than expected. There are fewer of those this year than in the past. But you will still find some top teams with a chip on their shoulder. That’s who you want to back in the first weekend. I’d say the BEST teams to take are those who have shown clear execution strength this season and also have that chip on their shoulders.

*Look to take Overs in games where up-tempo teams are playing each other. Tennessee and Long Beach State had a true track meet last season in that kind of matchup. The combination of fast tempo, tournament energy, and a 4-5 day layoff really energizes this kind of affair.

*Look to take Unders in games where slow-down teams are playing each other in afternoon tips. Some of the most boring games every year involve this kind of slow-motion meeting in a dead arena.

Proper handicapping is always a combination of applying time-proven approaches while having a a recognition of what’s happening NOW. This will be more true than ever during the first week of the NCAA tournament.

The oddsmakers showed clear weakness in the conference tournaments trying to deal with the new dynamic I’ve discussed. They don’t have it figured out yet!

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