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The Dynamics of College Basketball Conference Play

   by Bryan Leonard - 02/13/2012

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.
There was a showdown in the Missouri Valley conference this week between the top two teams, both starting 11-2 and both already have 20 wins as Wichita State and Creighton battle it out. It was a revenge spot, with Creighton already winning at Wichita, 68-61 in December. Wichita State has 7-foot, 256-lb senior Garrett Stutz (14.5 ppg, 8 rpg, .58%), 6-8 junior Carl Hall (5.5 rpg) up front, 30th in the nation in shooting (.477%) and 25th in scoring with 77.8 ppg.
Creighton is equally potent on offense with 6-7 sophomore Doug McDermott (23 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and 6-9, 270-lb junior Gregory Echenique (7.4 rpg) up front. McDermott leads the MVC and ranks third nationally in scoring. He’s either first or second in five different MVC categories, including 3-point percentage, field goal percentage, scoring, rebounding and double-doubles.
When they met in December Creighton won 68-61 at Wichita as a +7 dog. The total went under 149 as Creighton shot 42%, Wichita shot 33%. Doug McDermott, the nation's second-leading scorer, finished with just 12 points, less than half his average. That’s common in conference play between top teams with defense outshining offense many times.
That’s another factor in 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.
In the Mountain West Conference San Diego State and UNLV are once again fighting for wins and tournament seeding. San Diego State won the first meeting at home, 69-67, over UNLV as a +3.5 dog on January 14. UNLV is 10th in the nation in scoring (80 ppg), third in assists (18.3 pg) for first year coach Dave Rice, but SDSU held UNLV to 14 points below its season average and beat the Runnin' Rebels for the sixth straight time and ninth in 10 meetings. That game went under the total of 146.
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.

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