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Handicapping the Conference Tourneys

   by Al McMordie - 02/28/2005

College basketball tournament play tips off this week. One thing to keep in mind from a handicapping perspective is that, in many ways, it is a new season. Teams have the opportunity to “wipe the slate cleanâ€쳌 if they want to start from scratch, sometimes with a new attitude. This can be shaped by a disappointing regular season, or some late season games that the team felt it should have won but let slip away. Keep tabs on teams that have this happen to them, and then observe carefully how they approach tournament play.

For instance, a year ago Boston College got a rematch in the Big East tourney against Syracuse, a club they had lost to by 22 earlier in the year. BC was a 3-point dog, but they covered and got the outright win in a 57-54 surprise. The difference was defensive intensity -- the Orangemen were held 42 points below what they had scored on BC the previous meeting!

Another aspect tied into this is revenge. Teams generally play home and away series during the regular season, and can meet a third time in the conference tournament. You can find many examples of players talking about their previous loss to an upcoming opponent, which is a red flag that says they’re focused, particularly if they are a strong team or were upset when they last met. This happened with Western Michigan last season. The Broncos came into the 2004 MAC tournament having lost only three conference games all season. Their last two MAC losses before the tourney were to Toledo (giving up 93 points) and to Marshall (giving up 83 in an overtime defeat). So guess who Western Michigan faced in the first two tourney games? Toledo and Marshall! And the results were different -- and not pretty. Western Michigan blasted Marshall in the MAC tourney opener, 93-62 as a 12-point favorite. The Broncos then faced Toledo and won by double-digits again. Western Michigan was fired up not only because it was tournament play, but because they were also facing the few teams that had given them a defeat. Western Michigan went 2-0 SU and ATS in the rematches, covering the spread by an average of 10 points!
The flip side of this can be a team that struggled or lost out on a regular season title to a conference rival. If they meet again in the tourney, there can be plenty of motivation, as the team that finished second gets another chance in a “winner take all game.â€쳌 It will be interesting to watch the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, as Southern Illinois just clinched its fourth straight league title with a win over second place Wichita State, and they celebrated by cutting down the nets in front of the Wichita players. The Shockers have a fine team, but came up short in that big road game. But that bitter taste in their months may spur them to victory if the teams meet again in the MVC tourney.

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