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More Tourney Tips

   by Al McMordie - 03/09/2008

If you didn't get enough madness this weekend, or were out of town, don't sweat it. You get to go mad all over again! This is a unique week as teams play for conference titles with trips to the postseason play at stake. One of the great parts of March tournament play is the amount of sidebars that can pop up with respect to handicapping. That is, tournament play offers bettors many different factors to analyze and digest.

With the games meaning so much, this is a great time to mention how important defense is. Strong defense requires an all-out effort from players, and we are now reaching that point in the year where the meaning of games is at its highest. Win or go home is far different than the regular season, when you have a chance to play again. Soon it will be win or your season, no matter how great it might have been, is over.

Don't be surprised to see a lot more fierce defensive games with so much on the line now. We got a glimpse of this when No. 6 Duke hosted No. 1 North Carolina in an ACC regular season showdown. The Tar Heels held Duke scoreless for the final 5 minutes, 41 seconds in a 76-68 win at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The total on the game was 170, but it went under by almost 30 points! Sure, both teams like to play an uptempo style, but with so much at stake, intense defense rose up on both sides.

"We are getting better defensively," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "I think the statistics show that." Yes they did! Notice that a change in defensive strategy helped North Carolina win. In an 89-78 loss on Feb. 6 in Chapel Hill, Duke made 13 3-pointers to North Carolina's three, partly because the Tar Heels struggled to defend ball screens. In practice following last week's defeat of Florida State, Williams told his players to do something he'd never done as a coach. He asked them to switch on every ball screen to prevent players from getting open 3-pointers.

Offense requires timing, practice and even rhythm, with so much passing and cutting involved. It’s not that difficult for defenses to put in new wrinkles to upset the opponent’s timing or attack the shooter. With so much at stake in March, it’s not surprising coaches will stress the importance of defense and demand it, many times on every possession.

Think back to last season’s tournament run by Florida and Ohio State. The Gators had a reputation of a run-and-gun offense, yet in the first tourney game they shut down Georgia, 74-57, in an SEC tournament game that went under the total. In the SEC title game, the Florida defense was great again and held Arkansas to 56 points in a game that went under the total.

Ohio State also went 2-1 under the total in the Big 10 tournament, holding Purdue to 52 and Wisconsin to 49 in the final two games. Even uptempo teams can bring a fierce defensive effort that oddsmakers and bettors might not expect. The Conference USA championship a few years ago pitted Memphis and UAB, two strong running teams. Yet, they played lights-out defense in a 57-46 Memphis win. That game went under the total by 41 points! That same season uptempo Florida beat South Carolina for the SEC title, 49-47, in a game going under the total of 130. It's common to see close games and intense defensive battles.

Four years ago, UConn went 2-1 under the total in the Big East tournament, holding Notre Dame to 58, Villanova to 67 and Pitt to 58, one that started a 5-1 under the total run the rest of March. That same season Wisconsin turned on the defense, going 2-1 under the total in the tourney, knocking off Illinois 70-58 as a one-point dog in the title game. This is the time of the year for spirited defense!

Wisconsin continues to be a monster defensive team under Bo Ryan, currently at 17-9 under the total allowing 54 ppg. Don’t expect that strategy to change during tourney play. On Saturday, they clinched their first outright crown since 2003 with a 65-52 decision over Northwestern. It went under the total, their fourth straight game under. Over the next few weeks you will see upsets, fantastic finishes and plenty of rugged defense. Because March is money time! Good luck, as always...Al McMordie. And don't miss any of my March Madness winners, as I was the #1-ranked Tourney Handicapper last season, as documented by http://www.thesportsmonitor.com with an 84% win rate.

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