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by Bryan Leonard - 02/16/2011
College basketball conference play is in full swing. This provides handicappers with a second season, in a sense, with which to gauge statistics and matchups. Many teams schedule a string of non-conference cupcake games early in the season in order to run up big scores and easy victories. However, they could then falter quickly as they step up in competition during February conference play.
Virginia and Hofstra come to mind a few years ago, two teams that got off to strong starts but then struggled in January and February when the competition got better. Other times, teams can schedule very difficult non-conference games early in the season (and sometimes take serious beatings), to toughen them up for conference action. Jon Chaney's Temple Owls had a reputation for doing this. It's essential for handicappers to utilize power ratings and carefully check records versus quality opponents.
Even the unusually cold weather has influenced some teams. Winter weather across the South kept a pair of Southeastern Conference basketball teams on the road longer than planned this week. Both Arkansas and LSU stayed in Mississippi following games. The Razorbacks, who lost 67-56 to Mississippi State, made the decision to stay an extra night before the game against the Bulldogs because of heavy snow in Arkansas and expected snow in Starkville.
The National Weather Service reported 18 inches fell in Fayetteville, which Arkansas coach John Pelphrey said was one factor in the decision. Arkansas finally boarded a flight around 1 p.m. Thursday afternoon and returned home, where classes have been canceled in each of the past two days because of the weather.
Another factor is that conference teams will play each other more than once. Many teams are currently coming up against conference opponents they have played recently. It's important to look back on these recent meetings and see what took place. If one team blew out another, look at the box score to see why. And ask questions. Did one team dominate the glass? Or did the opponent simply have a bad shooting game? This can mean the rematch will be equally one sided, or it could mean the team that lost badly is looking for revenge.
Looking back at past years helps, as well. You can find trends where each team rolls over another on its home court, which happened for several years with ACC rivals Duke and Maryland. Or you might find that one team has the other's number and consistently gets the cover whether they're at home or at the other guy's place.
Check conference standings, too. Conference games will likely have greater importance for teams that have dropped a few and can't afford any more losses. In addition, you can find teams that have already fallen out of the conference race, which means they might begin "packing it in," especially on the road against stronger conference foes. Conference play offers a more level playing field. The "second season" can assist an astute handicapper with more angles than earlier non-conference action.