Every year during conference championship week there are a few NCAA tournament winners who are real head scratchers. These are the low seeded teams that had plodded through the regular season that somehow manage to get hot at just the right time to claim their conference title and secure an NCAA tournament bid that they may not have otherwise received. Quite often these teams cool down again when the big dance starts and disappear as suddenly as they appeared. Sometimes, though, teams can carry their momentum forward to even bigger things – like when UConn won the Big East tournament in 2011 as the 9th seed, then went on to win the national championship. It’s important, then, to be able to evaluate whether these surprise conference tournament winners can carry on their winning ways, or if their 15 minutes of fame is about to end. Here are seven factors to consider to help you make the best college basketball picks:
Who did they beat? – You need to look at whether they beat the best teams in their conference or not en route to their championship. Sometimes things work out just perfectly for them and other teams upset the best teams in the conference leaving a relatively easy path to glory. That would obviously be far less impressive than if the team faced the best teams in the conference and came out on top.
How strong is the conference? – It is less impressive to mount a big run in a conference tournament to come out on top if that conference is lousy than it would be to win a deep and talented conference. You want to look at a few things here – the quality of the best teams in the conference, the number of ranked teams, the number of likely tournament teams, and the conference RPI. By determining how strong the conference is you can get a better sense of whether the team is strong enough to carry their momentum into the big tournament.
How did they win? – The way a team won is far more important than the fact that they did win. Did they blow their opponents out or did they just barely squeak by in the end? Did they set the tone and control the tempo in their wins, or did their opponent control the flow of the game? Did they ride the hot hand of one player, or did they exhibit depth and a variety of tools? Were they forced to exhibit a lot of toughness and mental fortitude, or was it a relatively smooth road for them? Did their best opponents play at full strength, or did they seem to be looking ahead to the big tournament?
How has their recent form been? – They obviously have been playing well recently because they won their conference tournament. What you want to look at is whether that win came out of nowhere, or whether they had been showing signs of improving form down the stretch. How were their last four conference games? How did they perform against their last two ranked teams? Had the issues that they struggled with earlier in the season become less of an issue later in the year? Were there clear statistical improvements?
Do they have big game tendencies? – Sometimes you can have drawn a hint of the conference tournament performance from how the team performed in their biggest games. Some teams can’t consistently maintain their focus and intensity over all games, and struggle to get motivated against weaker teams, but can really shine against the best teams. That obviously helps them in the postseason when every game is their biggest game of the year.
Who did they draw in the bracket? – The ability to continue their hot streak has a lot to do with the teams they will have to play in the NCAA tournament. If their first round opponent and the likely opponents after that in the March Madness brackets are strong teams also riding momentum then it could be hard for the team to shine. If the opponents play a different style than the teams that they beat in the conference tournament then that could also be an issue – especially if it is a style that they haven’t done well against in the past.
How experienced are they? – The pressure in the NCAA tournament is intense at the best of times. When the team has to come off the high of an unexpected conference tournament win, though, the pressure is even higher, and the distractions and temptations to lose focus will be extreme. A team that is young and inexperienced won’t be as ready to handle that pressure than a team with a strong core of veteran leadership. It’s even better when that veteran core has had past tournament success as well.