by Jim Feist
It's the final stretch of a long college basketball season. There are better teams, tougher matchups, and defensive intensity. It's a good time of the season to look backward -- to look back, that is, to conference regular season tourney play and early season matches against different conferences. That's because it can be tougher to analyze matchups during the Big Dance, with teams from the East heading out West to play, and vice versa.
Even in the NIT or College Insider Tournament, there will be unusual matchups of teams from different conferences and different styles of play. This is why looking back on regular season meetings can be helpful. You know what a team's style of play by this point is.
Coaches, for example, can change what had been a slow, defensive-oriented team from a year ago into a wide-open, run-and-gun style. This is evident in team scoring averages and can even be noticeable in over/unders from season to season.
Early regular season games feature a lot of non-conference action. This can provide good box scores to judge how a school from a smaller conference did when stepping up in competition against the big boys. However, you must remember that those games often took place last November -- a long time ago. Teams can get significantly better or worse since then. So examine the starting five and the bench for those games.
There are all kinds of factors to carefully examine. 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 (Exhibit A: Texas Longhorns), which can be a killer to a team's momentum and hopes of advancing.
Here are some points to keep in mind when looking back on box scores from earlier this season to see how it might be relevant during tourney play:
1. Importance: Did a team play a tough schedule? Look back at some of the key conference games they played or early non-conference action that featured marquee or step-up games. Did the game give it their all or even pull some upsets? Did they play tough defense, or give up defensively, knowing they were supposed to lose? How teams played in those step-up games can give you a clue in March to their toughness and confidence.
2. Familiarity: Teams will face their conference opponents two and three times a season. From season to season, players and coaches get a much better understanding of their opponents' tendencies and strategies – and how to take advantage. When teams meet up in March that haven't played one another, examine their schedule to see who they did play. More to the point, did they play teams with similar styles? And how did they do? A slow, defensive-oriented Big 10 school, for instance, may have struggled against an uptempo Pac 10 or SEC squad. That should jump off the page.
3. History: An advantage for sports bettors is to examine the recent history of the teams if they meet again in the Big Dance. In the ACC, you can see how Duke and North Carolina have fared against each other the last few years. Is there a distinct home/road differential? Does one team "own" another? Is this a revenge situation? Carefully eyeing the past can reveal clues about the present and future.
Also, has a team from smaller conferences made it this far into the tourney before? Some schools can be wide-eyed about being here, especially ones with few juniors and seniors. Plus, does a coach have a track record in March? Does he have a good track record, or a bad one?
4. Defense: Late in the season, if two teams are battling each other for the lead in the conference, a head to head matchup can bring out the best in their defenses. March tournament play has even greater importance -- win or go home! Defense can be more intense this time of the season, which is important if you are a totals player. There's nothing sweeter than cashing a totals ticket in the second half so you don't have to sweat the final frantic minutes!