There are some things sports bettors hear every year when the NCAA Tournament rolls around – factors that will have a big impact on the outcome of the basketball tournament. Some of those really are significant. Many, though, sound a whole lot more important than they really are. Smart bettors are able to recognize the factors that don’t really have a significant effect on the outcome and ignore them, or at least treat them as they deserve. Here are six such factors that college basketball handicappers should understand:
Travel – As soon as the bracket is released every year you’ll hear all sorts of comments about the teams that face brutal travel. Basketball teams from the west coast will have to play on the east coast, and vice versa. Northern teams will have to travel to the far corner of the country. People will speculate about the impact this could have, and how unfair it could be. For the most part, though, this just isn’t that relevant. Teams have at least three days off between their last conference tournament game and their first tournament game, and often more. They haven’t known where they are going, but they have known that they would be traveling, and they have been able to prepare for that. They are able to travel to their game site at least a day in advance and settle in. If they make the next round then they will stay in the same hotel and develop a routine. By the end of the season the college teams are used to traveling a lot, and most have put on thousands of miles. On top of that all, the basketball teams play in neutral sites instead of in the home arenas of their opponents. For them this is easy travel, and they are more than capable of handling it. There are rare circumstances where it could be an issue – like if a west coast team has to travel to the eastern time zone and play a morning game. Mostly, though, travel in the tournament is not an issue that is worth worrying about significantly when it comes to handicapping.
Unavailable player – Every year there are a handful of high profile players who are forced to miss one or more games in the NCAA tournament for various reasons – injury or suspensions being the most common. The public almost always overreacts to these situations because the impact of the loss is almost never as big as it seems like it could be. By the time the college tournament rolls around the teams have a whole season under their belts. That means that they are comfortable with their depth, and their backup players are comfortable with their roles and the system of the team. Most teams will take a step back when they lose a key starter, but some won’t, and those that do won’t usually suffer as much as it might seem.
Coach with history with opponent – There are also some good storylines in the tournament involving college coaches. A coach will face the team he used to coach, or the school he starred at as a player or worked at as an assistant. A coach will face the coach he played under, or one he used to work for. A coach that was a finalist for a job he didn’t get will face the coach who did get the job. Any of these stories are compelling and sound good, but they rarely have nearly as much impact as people think they will. Unless the core of the team the coach is facing is the same as he was working with then the players won’t be particularly invested in the storyline, and it will be nothing more than a minor distraction for the coach.
Conference strength – It can be really tempting to judge teams based on how strong or weak their opponents were in the regular season, and how strong their conference tournament was. The problem is, though, that the conferences don’t play the games – the individual teams do. A basketball team from a strong NCAA conference can struggle in a matchup, and a team from a weak conference can go on a huge run. There are very few good reasons for college basketball handicappers to spend more than a little effort looking at how the conferences stack up in terms of strength.
Conference tournament performance – It really doesn’t matter how a college hoop team performed in their conference tournament. Sometimes a conference tournament champion can ride a wave of momentum into the NCAA Tournament. UConn was a ninth seed in the 2011 Big East Tournament, but won it and then won the NCAA tournament. Other times, though, a conference tournament champion will lack focus and intensity in the NCAA Tournament and will falter on the first weekend. Conversely, sometimes a lousy conference tournament performance will lead to a lousy NCAA tournament performance, while other times a team will turn things around and play great in the big dance. The conference tournaments are single elimination events. Anything can happen when you have no margin for error, so it is far too easy to read more into what happened in the conference tournament than you should.
Team’s past history in tournament – This is the biggest one of all as far as I am concerned. You’ll always hear all sorts of NCAA tournament trends – like the fact that a team has won their opening game nine of the last 10 years, or that a team has lost their last five Sweet 16 games. Nothing could be more irrelevant. College basketball is all about change. Each year the teams always have some new players, and some missing players. Trends that spread over several years would only be somewhat significant if it was exactly the same team each year, but when the baksetaball teams change so much there is no real reason to assume that history will repeat itself. Knowledgeable basketball bettors focusing on the tournament know that in order for a trend to have any real legitimacy it needs to involve the same basic team, and it needs to have a significant sample size. Neither is the case here.