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Conference Tourney Time

   by Al McMordie - 02/28/2006

The second season of college basketball begins this week. On Tuesday, the Horizon League and Ohio Valley Conference begin their post-seasons, followed by the Missouri Valley Conference, before a slew of other conferences start Friday. The regular season is just about over, so players, coaches, handicappers and oddsmakers all have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each team.

One thing to keep in mind as this second season begins is defense. That is, teams are more likely to display all-out defense for 40 minutes, far more so than at any time during the regular season. What’s happening is that during the regular season, there are many times when a team can coast. If a team is winning big, like North Carolina did vs. Maryland on Sunday (a 17-point halftime lead), that team can relax in the second half and not exert as much effort defensively as they would if it were a close game.

Coaches can empty the bench or substitute more liberally, giving rest to their best players, and game experience to some off the bench. The same is true if a team is getting blown out. However, tournament play is a different animal. The games are more likely to be close and certainly far more meaningful, especially as the tourney gets closer and closer to the championship game.

Take a look at a wide-open offensive team like Wisconsin-Milwaukee of the Horizon League last season. They won the Horizon tournament and two of its three games went under the total. In the championship game against Detroit, neither team could top 60 points, even though Milwaukee averaged 75 per game during the season.

The games mean more, so players and coaches are likely to demand a stronger defensive effort. Defense takes a lot of work -- more so than offense. A player has to stay close to his man, know when to rotate, come after opposing shooters, think carefully, box out, grab a loose rebound. None of that is easy. There’s plenty of mental energy used, as well as physical. Players need to constantly think about what they’re supposed to do and what their opponent is doing.

A similar thing happened to Duke last season. They won the ACC crown by beating Virginia, NC State and Georgia Tech. After averaging 78 ppg during the regular season and 80 ppg in ACC play, the Blue Devils fell below that scoring average in all three ACC tourney games. All but one game went under the total, as well. In fact, Duke went under the total in four of six games in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
And those schools I just mentioned had run-and-gun reputations. Look at a team like Illinois, which was versatile enough to play any style an opponent wanted last season. The Illini won the Big 10 title allowing 51, 56 and 43 points! That was far below its season average of 61 ppg allowed. All three of Illinois' Big 10 tournament games sailed under the total. If you look at all of Illinois’ postseason games last season, the Illini went 7-1-1 under the total in all games, including its 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Championship game. So enjoy all the madness that gets set to take off this week. And don’t be surprised if you see a little more defense than offense. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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