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How Seeding Helps Handicappers and How It Hurts

Leading up to the NCAA tournament all of the talk is about seeds – which teams will be seeded where, and what that means for them. In some ways the intense discussion is important for handicappers to keep in mind, but in other ways it is nothing more than a distraction. For serious college basketball handicappers, here’s a look at ways in which seeds can help and they can hurt your college basketball picks:

Seeds matter when making your college basketballs picks because:

Potential indicator of strength – On the surface NCAA tournament seeds are helpful because they can give a very general indicator of how strong teams are. You may not have spent a lot of time following the Big South or the MAAC during the year, yet by looking at where their champions are seeded you can get a solid initial sense of how strong the conferences are and how much regard they deserve – a lot of attention if they are a 10 or 11 seed, but much, much less if they are a 15 or 16.

Shows relative merits of teams in same conferences – In major college conferences that have a lot of basketball teams in the tournament the seedings can give you a sense of the relative strength of the teams involved – or at least of the perception of the strength of the teams involved. For example, in the Big Ten if Wisconsin was a three seed and Michigan was an 11 then you would have a strong sense that the selection committee views Wisconsin to be dramatically better than Michigan. While the differences in strength between teams in the same conference are often clear, there are times when it can be muddy, and the seedings can bring clarity in those cases.

They shape public opinion – The sports betting public puts a lot of importance on seedings because they likely don’t spend a lot of time following the subtleties of the sport during the season. As a result, in most cases the higher seed will be the favorite in most games. More sophisticated bettors know that March Madness seeds don’t always indicate strength, so they will know that they can be very useful because they can direct public opinion away from the actual better team and create real value on underdogs.

Seeds don’t matter when making your college basketball picks because:

Don’t actually always indicate relative strength – This one should go without saying for most basketball bettors, but it is still worthy of a lot of attention and discussion. The simple fact is this – higher seeded teams are not always better than lower seeded teams. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, outside of a few exceptional college hoop teams – usually well ranked ones – it can be very tough for conference champions from mid-major conferences to break into the top half of the seedings. A mid-major conference winner often doesn’t get the exposure or play the schedule required to be a higher seed. That doesn’t mean, of course, that these teams aren’t good, and wouldn’t be worthy based on pure skill and talent of a higher seeding. It’s just the inevitable problem of the sport – even good basketball teams in obscure mid-major conferences can’t avoid playing against weak conference opponents, and the often lack the credibility to build a non-conference schedule that would be helpful for their cause.

Another issue with seedings is when the selection committee falls in love with a particular conference. The Big East in 2011, for example, had 11 teams in the field. They probably deserved that many, but there is no doubt that the conference was getting a whole lot of love – probably more than they deserved – and that lower level teams in the conference are getting more respect than they deserve as a result of being a part of such a highly regarded conference. That means that those 11 teams – or at least some of them – were likely seeded higher than they would be if they were playing in a conference that got less respect.

Even without the love affair factor it is simply easier for a team in a major conference to get respect than most mid-majors. The fifth place team in the Big Ten will be seeded much higher than the conference champions in many conferences just because of who they are and where they play. Are they better than those conference champions? Maybe, but certainly not necessarily.

Lower seeds can almost always win – This is crucial. March Madness seeds are dangerous because they can blind you to the possibility that the lower seeds can win. It’s not like a lower seed winning is a fluke, either – as countless 5-12 games over the years have shown us. You simply have to handicap every tournament game as if the seeds don’t exist because the seedings can cause more issues than they can provide help for bettors. Relying on seedings to shape your betting decisions – even slightly – can badly erode your betting edge in the tournament. Savvy college basketball handicappers need to be wary.

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