Conference strength is a challenging concept for college basketball handicappers. When it comes to the postseason there is a lot we can learn from conference strength, but there are a lot of ways that it can lead us astray as well. As with most things, the best way to deal with the issue is to understand the issues so you can find the best ways to deal with them. Here are two ways that conference strength can be very helpful in postseason handicapping, and two ways that it can lead to problems:
Relative strength – The betting public tends to overvalue records – especially in the postseason. A team that has 24 wins, for example, will get much more credit than a team with 19 wins in most cases. If you know the sport well, though, then you know that the record means very little without context. In other words, it matters who a team has played and beaten, not what their record is. Conference strength is a very good way to get a true sense of how good a team is. For example, in 2011 I would give a lot more credit to a team in the Big Ten or Big East that lost eight conference games much more credit than a team from the Pac-10 or ACC that lost just four conference contests. By understanding conference strength on a year by year basis college basketball handicappers can have a sense of relative significance of conference records, and they can have a jump on the betting public in the search for value in lines.
Public perception – The public forms very strong biases for and against certain conferences. Generally, for example, they value major conferences – football’s BCS conferences, over the mid-majors, and they give the big name mid-majors like the A-10 and Mountain West much more credit than other conferences. In other words, the public has a hierarchy of conferences in their minds, and they allow that hierarchy to significantly impact their decision making process. The problem with that, though, is obvious – sometimes the biases don’t match reality. At times there are mid-majors that are better than major conferences, and there are mid-majors no one cares about that are better than the ones that get all the attention. When a conference significantly overachieves or underachieves compared to what people think they are capable of then basketball bettors can often find value because the betting public won’t adjust to the current reality.
Can give teams too much credit – The Big East is often a very strong and deep basketball conference, and bettors know that. If you watch the betting patterns in the postseason tournaments it is clear that the public has a lot of respect for the conference, and gives them an edge in most games they play. The issue, though, is that there can be weaker teams in even the strongest conference. By relying too much on conference strength and letting that cloud your judgment you can find yourself viewing teams as stronger than they really are. The structure of the tournament increases the chances of this happening. When a NCAA conference has a particularly strong season and gets a lot of respect then they tend to get more teams into the tournament field than a conference that has had a weak year – an eight win team in the Big East in 2011 will have a much better chance of dancing than an eight win Pac-10 team. It’s very important, then, that you analyze these teams based just on the key factors – who they played, who they beat, the matchups they present, the coaching and so on – and don’t give any credit to them based on conference strength alone.
Can lead to good teams not getting enough credit – Almost every year we see a college basketball team or two make the Sweet Sixteen or go even further that seems to have come from nowhere. The most common cause for that is simply that they come from a conference that people don’t respect. The 2010 Northern Iowa Panthers are a classic example. They made serious headlines by winning two games and capturing the imaginations of the nation thanks to the heroics of senior Ali Farokhmanesh. They were painted as the ultimate Cinderella. The truth is, though, that they were a very good college hoop team in a conference – the Missouri Valley – that no one paid attention to. They won 30 games, including 15 in an impressively solid conference. People’s perception of conference strength blinded them to the possibility that this team was more than capable of doing exactly what they did. A savvy college basketball handicapper who is focused on making winning picks won’t let this happen.