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College Hoops: Feeling the Pressure

   by Bryan Leonard - 03/15/2008

It may be mid-March, but I am reminded of Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS between the Dodgers and Mets. The Mets had won 100 games, leading from wire to wire, and were expected to win the World Series. But they fumbled and bumbled Game 7 behind a slew of second-inning errors and lost the pennant 6-0 to the Dodgers. After the game, a baseball analyst wrote, "The Dodgers wanted to win Game 7. The Mets HAD to win it." His point was that the pressure was on the team that was expected to win. This is something to keep in mind the next few weeks with college basketball's tournament play taking place all around us.

Many teams will be heavy favorites in their conference tournaments and the NCAA tourney. But go back and look at the history -- the favored #1 seeds don't all meet in the Final Four, do they? In fact, you'll find countless examples of the top team getting knocked off in both the NCAA tourney and the conference play. Sometimes the pressure is all focused on the favored team, which feels it HAS to win. This can cause tightness and sloppy play with clubs that can't handle the extra focus now that it's a "new" season with the whole country tuned in.

It can be a breeze, for example, to win your final 10 regular season games playing against teams like Towson, James Madison and William & Mary, but all of a sudden the competition gets tougher AND you often play three games in three nights in March. That's quite a difference from putting it in cruise control as the regular season winds down.

Other times, there can be a bunch of very strong teams that finished second and third in the division laying in the weeds. The No. 1 seed gets all the attention, but the talented No. 2 and 3 seeded teams are waiting patiently, plotting for their turn -- with no focus on them -- to strike at the favorite.

If you look back at the regular season meetings, you might be surprised to find out how evenly the teams played. I had a play on big underdog Penn State when they played Illinois in the Big 10 tourney. In my pregame analysis I noted, “For some unknown reason the Illini have taken money all year without any merit. They are 12-18-1 ATS and have proven over and over again that they are a team that simply doesn't play up to its ability. On the season Illinois is 13-18 straight up while Penn State is 15-15. Yet the Illini are a substantial favorite here.

Maybe it has something to do with how they match up with the Nittany Lions? These two faced each other twice this season with Penn State winning both meetings. Just as expected the Nittany Lions were substantial underdogs in both meetings catching 5 and 8 points in the process. Maybe the reason why Illinois is favored is that they enter the conference tournament playing the far better ball? That's not it either as Illinois is on a 5-14 run while Penn State has won 12 of their last 23 games.

What is a legitimate reason for Illinois to be favored is that Penn State will be playing without forward Jamelle Cornley who averages 12 points and 6 rebounds a game. But the Nittany Lions just beat Indiana without him in the lineup. Is Penn State better with a healthy Cornley in the lineup? No doubt about it, but the generous point spread more than makes up for his absence. The underdog has cashed 7 of the last 8 meetings in this series and Penn State has cashed to the tune of 6-1-1 in those meetings. In what looks to be a low scoring game the underdog is a gift, play Penn State.â€쳌 The Lions got the money with ease in a 64-63 slow-down game.

Clearly, March tourney play is a very different time of the year. Some teams with veteran players who've been here before understand the changes and pressure. But other teams, young ones, or ones that are off poor seasons, might not have as much experience and be more likely to choke up or play sloppy ball when the games mean far more in importance. That's a big part of why upsets are so much a part of March tourney play.

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