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The Big Dance

   by Al McMordie - 03/15/2005

In case you didn't get enough college basketball last week, round two of tournament time tips off this week. The NIT and NCAA tournaments get going after a wild weekend of conference tournament action. For months we've had the advantage of being able to analyze conference statistics to get a good guage of how strong a team is within its own conference. However, now you'll find teams playing largely against opponents from different conferences, which can make it tougher to measure and predict what might happen. For example, on Friday, Stanford of the Pac 10 will be playing Mississippi State of the SEC. Those two conferences are relatively equal. But first round games will also feature Big Ten representative Michigan State against Old Dominion of the Colonial, Syracuse against Vermont, and defending champion UConn will face Central Florida. In those match-ups, you find very different levels of talent and depth, which makes handicapping a bit more tricky and involved. For example, the only thing Eastern Kentucky and Kentucky have in common is Colonel coach Travis Ford (an ex-Wildcat), but you'll find that as a game one matchup, as well.

The first thing to understand is that some of these games will not be as one-sided as the public may think, especially with the point spread involved. Some little-known teams are actually very talented. Perhaps they're a confident, veteran-laden team or maybe they have one STAR player who will someday be in the NBA (think of Miami of Ohio and Wally Sczerbiak a few years ago, and tiny Indiana State and Larry Bird in 1979). Upsets do happen this time of year. One of the most memorable examples was No. 1 Cincinnati a few years ago as a huge favorite, but in its first game star Kenyon Martin broke his leg, which changed everything. Upsets, cold shooting, and injuries, are what make this tournament exciting.

Another thing to understand is that the NCAA tournament is not the only tourney taking place. The NIT is also going on, and is sort of a "second banana," taking teams that failed to receive an invitation to the Big Dance. This brings in another aspect of wagering: Who's interested in playing and who's not? Some NIT teams are honored to be invited to a postseason tourney, while other NIT teams are dejected as they expected to be playing in the Big Dance. This can be reflected in their play, too.

It will be interesting to see how Oral Roberts plays this week. This team won 25 games and looked like a shoe-in for the Big Dance, but suffered a stunning 61-60 loss to 11-18 Oakland in the Mid Continent championship game, an upset that made national sports news. Now Oral Roberts finds itself as the only team in the nation with 25 wins and a conference regular-season championship left out of the NCAA Tournament. Will they be up for the NIT? Or still hanging their heads? Take a close look at teams that made it all the way to their tournament championship game, only to lose, and then have to settle for an NIT bid. Teams like Buffalo, Holy Cross and Denver also this criteria. It's a great -- and busy -- time of the sports calendar. Don't get caught napping as there are so many games and so many different angles to examine this week in college hoops! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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