by Jim Feist
A smart handicapper looks at college basketball tournament time different than during the regular season. Certainly the games mean more, bringing added pressure on the players and coaching staff. Here are a few things I examine late in the college basketball season as teams are vying for conference championships and tournament positioning.
*Depth: Yes, size does matter, but I’m not talking about a height advantage under the boards for rebounding or shot blocking. I’m talking about bench strength and depth. This is something that bigger schools, such as Duke, Kentucky, Kansas often have (though not always) giving them a substantial advantage over smaller schools, such as Kent State and Valparaiso. Those smaller schools have had very good basketball programs in recent years, but you rarely see them making a run at the Final Four and beyond partly because depth is such a key during tournament play.
March basketball can feature conference tournaments that play a string of games in a short period of time, sometimes three games in three days, and the Final Four, for example, takes place on a Friday with the title game two days later. This is different than the regular season when teams usually play one or two games a week.
Central Michigan was a good example of this a few years ago. The Chippewas were the best team in college basketball to bet on, going 23-6 against the spread! In March, Central Michigan won the MAC tournament then upset Creighton in the Big Dance, 79-73 as a +6 dog. Two nights later the Chippewas stepped up in class against Duke and as a 9½-point dog lost 86-60. Duke was able to go eight-deep and run Central Michigan into the ground (CM shot .368% while the Blue Devils shot 61%.)
*Games Against Quality Opponents: I mentioned stepping up in class as something to watch closely. College basketball is unique in that some smaller schools can be extremely competitive when stepping up against quality opponents. Butler and Northern Iowa have had some strong March runs in recent years, as has Gonzaga. Earlier on this season UNI topped North Carolina and Iowa State.
When sizing up potential dogs and March money-line upsets, a savvy sports bettor has a wealth of information at his or her fingertips by looking at how smaller schools fared during the regular season against the big boys. When NC Wilmington upset USC as a 10-point dog in the 2002 West tourney, the Seahawks had already won at Minnesota as a +10 dog (58-50) during the regular season and lost 79-78 at Wake Forest as a +13 dog.
*Point guards: You can have all the big men in the world, but when March rolls around, a quality point guard is a huge advantage, a must, in my opinion. UConn road talented guard play to recent titles, as did Duke last season.
*Defense: Teams that play ‘D’ advance during tourney time, those that are soft on ‘D’ go south fast. Check the home/road defensive breakdowns of teams, because some clubs play great defense at home but lazy ‘D’ on the road. Make a daily check of “college basketball team logs.”
*Neutral Sites: Many teams in college athletics are great at home and a different team on the road. Since tournament games are often played at neutral sites, you must check to see a team’s performance on the road and against good competition during the season (either away from home, or at neutral sites). Winning once as a road dog can be a fluke, be three times in a row like that should be a large blip on the radar screen of a good handicapper.
College basketball tournament action is one of the best times of the sports calendar, but there are differences to handicapping those games as opposed to the regular season. Understand those differences carefully, because the more you understand, the better your winning percentage at the betting window.