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Handicapping the Big Dance
by Jim Feist - 03/20/2014
March tournament play is one of the most exciting times of the sports betting calendar. A seemingly endless stream of games, at times running morning, noon and night, will test the nerves and cognitive powers of fans and bettors. It can be a time of highs and lows, with streaks, exciting finishes and surprising upsets.
What has taken shape the last few months, though, is largely conference play. Since conferences are purposely made up of schools with a similar level of talent, you need to pay attention to how teams start the season and what their schedule has been like. Some schools want to get a few cheap victories over smaller schools and fatten up their won/lost record early in the season, while others want to test their teams early to toughen them up for conference play.
Now it's time for conference tournament play to begin, essentially the THIRD season of college basketball. The first season was November and December, non-conference games, plus coaches trying to figure out their personnel and strengths and weaknesses. The second season has been conference play the last two months, and now it's tourney time! This is where the weak links drop off, while the better and more motivated teams advance.
While the big man is so important to winning championships in the NBA, college basketball tournaments find more of a premium on strong guard play. The sparkplug guard handles the ball, controls the tempo, and can go on a hot run from three-point land at any moment. Remember that the college three-point shot is closer to the basket than the NBA trey. In addition, poor guard play can result in too many turnovers, which can be a killer to a team's momentum and hopes of advancing.
Another factor to examine is power ratings and RPI rankings. Some small schools can have a mediocre record, but a strong RPI rank because they played a string of tough competition early in the season. Teams like that can be in better shape come tourney time, even though their overall record might not be that impressive.
A few years ago Ball State started the season with a 7-4 record and an unimpressive 4-3 against the spread mark. Yet, the team was highly ranked in the national polls, as was their RPI rating (ratings percentage index). Why? Ball State, of the Mid-American conference, played a tough non-conference schedule to begin the season. In fact, what the Cardinals did the first two months of the season shook the basketball world. Ball State beat Kansas 93-91 as a +15 dog, smashed UCLA 91-73 as +9 dog, then lost to #1 Duke 83-71 as a +13 dog. That 3-0 ATS start turned a lot of heads, and Ball State went on to play competitive games against Indiana and Oklahoma State team before losing.
From a betting perspective, it is important to remember that the general public leans toward the favorite and games over the total in all sports. Plus, teams win with defense and college basketball is no different, especially when the games mean so much in March. Many teams that are good enough to make the tournament have relied all year long on defense. I did a content analysis of seven years of tournament play, and in five of those years in the opening round there were more unders than overs, with a whopping 22-9 edge in "unders" in one season. Teams often bring their top-notch defense into the tourney from the opening game.
Another point to consider is one way to identify live dogs is how they play down the stretch. If a team is hungry and turns on the jets to either win a conference title or shoot for a 20-win season, that can be reflected in their play, both straight up and against the number. One year Wisconsin-Milwaukee out of the Horizon League had outstanding guard play behind senior Ed McCants Ronald Davis and Chris Hill. Milwaukee won 14 of its final 15 regular season games, then swept through the Horizon League tourney to win the championship.
So the Panthers carried a 17-1 straight up, 13-4-1 against the spread run into the big dance. Talk about a motivated team on a roll! Wisconsin-Milwaukee upset Alabama 83-73, then upset Boston College 83-75, before running out of steam against Illinois. That's the other thing about small, live dogs: Eventually they do run out of steam because they usually lack the horses the deeper the tournament goes. However, they provide far more surprises than you might at first think. In March tournament play, the public may be caught off guard by surprises, but the astute handicapper anticipates them.