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Sweet 16

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/28/2008

Last year at this time I outlined some thoughts about handicapping the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds. I was looking over that old article this morning, and noticed how little had changed! The basic tournament fundamentals still apply at this level:

*Winning teams defend the basket with energy and passion

*Winning teams rebound

*Winning teams attack the basket on offense like there’s no tomorrow

*Winning teams avoid making turnovers

*Winning teams keep their composure late in close games

Everything you can say about teams, coaches, point guards, star scorers, and monsters in the middle is addressed in those five points. Whatever Billy Packer says, or the guys in the CBS studio say, or the 10 former coaches in ESPN’s studios say, or your local newspaper pundits are saying, can all be traced back to those fundamentals.

Either the team being discussed did those things…or they didn’t.

Think back to last year’s Final Four. Wasn’t Florida GREAT at all of those factors? Didn’t Ohio State have power inside with Greg Oden and great guard play with Mike Conley? Georgetown and UCLA were also there. Defense and rebounding. Attacking the basket. Avoiding turnovers with your guards while trying to force them from the other guy. This year’s Final Four is going to personify the same qualities even if some (or all) of the names have changed.

As handicappers, we have to be tapped into the reality of what’s happening on the floor. We must avoid getting too involved with things that sound important but are disconnected from those realities. It's not just about whether more dogs or favorites are covering. Or, trying to ride a hot team or go against a coach you don’t trust. Or, just backing a conference that has been hot through the first couple of rounds.

Sometimes those approaches work. But they only work if they can be traced back to the fundamentals! If one conference is particularly good at playing aggressively in the paint, its top teams will do well in the Dance. Leagues that are soft inside won’t. You might stumble onto something without realizing the underlying key. Favorites might be covering because the top teams are really great at executing the keys in big games. But that doesn’t mean it’s all about “favorites.â€쳌 It’s all about executing the keys!

As we handicap the coming Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games, we owe it to ourselves to study past performance in these important areas.

*Look at the first and second round boxscores to see who showed up well in defense, rebounding, and turnover differential. Those are the teams you want to take. Make note of any teams who just happened to shoot well from long range a couple of times. Those are the teams you want to go against.

*Go back to the conference tournaments and evaluate the surviving teams in the same light. Were they doing the right things in those neutral court games as well? Teams who have been consistently thriving in neutral games are the ones you want to back at this critical juncture in the tournament.

*Look at the regular season stat rankings for all the remaining teams in the areas outlined today. The worst defensive teams are going to have trouble from this point forward, even if they were good by national standards. It’s now a 16-team nation! Teams who rank near the bottom of what’s left in defense and rebounding are likely to be overmatched. Teams with turnover-prone guards will be toast now that they’re stepping way up in class.

*Look at how many free throws each offense has been shooting. Aggressive teams create extra points for themselves by going to the free throw line. Passive teams that rely on the three-pointer make fewer trips (sometimes, A LOT fewer!). I know bettors who still think free throw shooting is entirely based on biased referees. Sure, there are some bad calls. But, aggressive teams go to the line much more often than passive teams do. This deep in the Dance, you want to bet on aggressive teams.

The great thing about Sweet 16 week is that you’ve got a few days to study all the teams without distractions. You can really dig deep to develop an understanding of everyone. And, that effort will pay off immediately in the Elite 8 too. You’re basically handicapping two rounds at once. Those weekend games will pick themselves because you know the teams so well, AND you’ll have learned even more by watching them in action Thursday and Friday.

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