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Early Round Handicapping

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/15/2009

When the NCAA Tournament starts Thursday, I think the single most important key for handicappers will be getting an early read on the true strengths of the various conferences.

Let me ask you this. What does it mean when a second place team in a major conference has SEVEN league losses? Is it a mediocre league with a bunch of “go againstâ€쳌 teams? Or, is it a very strong league where everyone’s beating each other up?

This isn’t a trivial exercise:

*Two teams tied for second in the Big Ten have SEVEN losses in conference play (Illinois and Purdue). The next three teams in the standings are knotted at 10-8. This is probably as close to true parity as a major conference can get. Michigan State is alone at the top. Indiana was alone at the bottom. Everybody else was close to even. Does the Big Ten have a lot of good teams who kept beating themselves up? Do they have a lot of below average teams who kept winning because somebody had to win? The answer will trigger several pointspread winners in the Big Dance.

*The second place team in the SEC has SIX losses. In fact, going into the conf tourney there was a three-way tie for second-best in that league…with Tennessee, Auburn, and South Carolina knotted up. Perceptions are that the SEC is MUCH worse this year than in the past. Auburn and South Carolina had their “bubblesâ€쳌 burst. Was this actually a competitive league featuring teams capable of March surprises? Or, is it a very bad league where the contenders will be blowout fodder for the “realâ€쳌 powers in the sport?

*The second place team in the Pac 10 is pretty good (UCLA). But the two teams tied for third have SEVEN losses! That’s Arizona State and California. Here we have another conference with a lot of parity. I’ve heard people say that the Big Ten isn’t very good, but the Pac 10 is great. The shape of the standings is very similar though. Are we about to learn that the Pac 10 is mediocre, but the Big Ten deserves more respect? How can seven conference losses be a compliment in one place but an insult in another?

*The Big 12 doesn’t get bunched up until places four through seven in the standings, where everyone is 9-7. But it should be noted that national power Oklahoma and respected Texas both lost to Arkansas in pre-conference action. Arkansas would go 2-14 in the SEC this year. If two of the better teams in the Big 12 couldn’t beat lowly Arkansas, and the Razorbacks went 2-14 in what appears to be a struggling conference, and Kansas was able to win the Big 12 title with a bunch of new players, is THIS about to become an unexpected disaster area? The upsets in the league tournament sure surprised a lot of people!

So far I’ve mentioned four of the traditional “BCSâ€쳌 conferences in college sports. The other two are the Big East and the ACC, who seem to have a stranglehold on the best teams this year. Is THAT an illusion because their conferences didn’t have depth?

I have to say, I don’t recall there ever being this much mystery about the big time conferences heading into the NCAA Tournament before. Even if you have the Pac 10 properly pegged internally, or the Big 12, or the SEC, how confident can you be that you know how everyone will perform when they get thrown on the Dance floor with everyone else and the music starts?

Here are some tips:

*Review how all tournament teams played in non-conference play action, particularly when they were on the road facing teams from the top leagues. I’ve done this myself, and some very strong clues are jumping off the page.

*Study the early-week NIT results as games are played before the NCAA Tournament even gets under way. Historically, there have been some “early warning signsâ€쳌 for overrated conferences on the NIT scoreboard. Of course, there is the NIT caveat, that some teams care about it more than others.

*Be proactive once the Dance begins in rating the conferences. Don’t just think team-by-team. Think conference-by-conference as you’re watching the games. If there’s parity in the Big Ten, and Pac 10, and Big 12, then early results for those leagues are likely to foreshadow later results for better or worse.

*Learn “from the edgesâ€쳌 when evaluating each conference. If the teams who just barely got in are doing well, then everyone from that league may be stronger than you think. If the teams at the very top are doing poorly, then everyone from that league may be worse than you think.

*Watch for the basic fundamentals of basketball execution. If a team is making a lot of turnovers, that’s a strike against its whole conference. They managed to post a winning record despite being turnover prone! If a team is putting up bad shots on offense, or allowing easy scores on defense, it reflects badly on their league as well. Conversely, if one of the last teams to get an invite from a league, is executing well and playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, there’s a good chance their colleagues will be doing that too. If the pundits are right that the Pac 10 is better than the Big Ten, it will show up in these areas very quickly.

I firmly believe that the difference between handicapping success and failure this year will come from the ability to gauge conference strengths. Those who read and react correctly will be able to race to a fantastic record. Those who aren’t thinking about the issue will spend too much time spinning their wheels.

SOMEBODY is going to break through and make a statement.

SOMEBODY is going to be a disaster. Frankly, I’m expecting at least two conference-wide disasters from major leagues, and possibly as many as three. I’m going to stay open-minded though because I know this is a story that’s going to write itself once the results start coming in.

Stay on top of this. Your personal wagering story this month depends on it!

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