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College Hoops Betting: Conference Play

T.O. Whenham of Doc's Sports Predictions

I'm a huge college basketball fan, but I have to say that I am relieved that January is finally here. Non-conference play provides some intrigue and some fascinating match-ups that we wouldn't otherwise see, but it also gives us so many ridiculous games and hideous mismatches that I'm not sad that it's in the rearview mirror. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to handicap a game between two teams that have never even heard of each other, play different levels of opponents and have styles that couldn't be more different. In conference play, teams are on a similar level and they have a history of playing against each other.

If you've struggled to find winners so far in the college basketball season, then conference play may be just what you need. The increased consistency may get your record back on track and your wallet a little fatter. In order to cash in, though, you need to make some adjustments to your handicapping to avoid simple but costly mistakes. Here's a look at three changes that the conference season brings about that you need to account for:

1) Records are completely meaningless. Early in the season you can use a team's win-loss record as a basic indicator of relative strength. Once conference play starts, however, they mean almost nothing. Because a team has control over its own non-conference schedule, you can't tell on the surface what a record actually means. Take Oregon, for example. The Ducks are 13-0, and their lineup is putting up some ridiculous numbers. The problem is that they haven't played anyone. The best team they have dispatched is Nebraska. Oregon-Nebraska would be fascinating on a football field, but it's not exactly the clash of the titans on the hardwood. I think Oregon is probably a pretty good team, but their record, despite being spotless, does very little to tell us if I am right or not. It would be very easy to get caught overvaluing the Ducks, and then scratching your head as you try to figure out why you have less money than you used to.

On the other extreme you have a team like Butler. The Bulldogs are 13-1, and their efforts are perhaps as impressive as any team out there. They have the fourth highest RPI of any team in the country, meaning they've played a tough schedule - Notre Dame, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Indiana, Purdue. They play in the Horizon League, so they have already played the hardest parts of their schedule, and any loss from here forward would be a significant upset. They will be looking to run the table to try to maintain a decent RPI and get a good tournament seed, and they will have the motivation and the tools to give that a good go. In other words, when it comes to conference play, Butler's 13-1 is a lot more meaningful as a handicapping tool than Oregon's 13-0.

There are all sorts of other teams that have lying records. You'll go broke if you think that Michigan is anywhere near as good as their 13-3 record. Duke will face more severe challenges which may or may not expose some concerning potential weaknesses that their 13-1 mark doesn't hint at. Wisconsin beat Pittsburgh, but they still seem to potentially be overachieving at 14-1 given the absence of a lot of other strong competition. Clemson is undefeated and from a major conference, yet they aren't even in the top 20. It works the other way, too. Gonzaga may be 9-6 and only have just the third best record in the WCC, but do you honestly believe that a team that beat North Carolina and Texas this year is going to continue to struggle once they hit their conference?

2) You have to know the conferences. Different conferences often have different relative strengths. By understanding the conferences, especially the mid-majors, you can find situations that present mismatches that can potentially be exploited. Besides the obvious examples of Butler and Gonzaga that I mentioned above, and which the public will obviously be aware of, there are several examples of teams that are just plain better than their conference. Air Force seems like the most obvious choice, along with teams like Wichita State (which will provide more value than they probably should given their recent struggles) and others. On the flip side, by studying the conferences even a little bit you can avoid the traps that a lot of the public is going to fall into. George Mason is a classic example. Their run last year raised their profile dramatically and got them much more betting attention, but the fact is that they weren't even the best team in the Colonial during the season last year, and they have been decidedly average this year.

3) TV really matters. This is as much a factor of the end of football as it is a result of conference play, but the fact is that we will start seeing many more games on national TV. Games between major conference rivals, or those featuring national powerhouses, will start to get some very significant national attention when they are broadcast during a prime sports viewing time. For most players, and especially for those that are playing on an underdog trying to unseat a major power, the prospect of playing on TV is an exciting thing that draws a lot of focus and excitement. By being aware of what games are the major TV games in conference play then you can be on the lookout both for teams that under-perform in a mid-week game because they are anticipating their weekend shot at glory, or teams that suffer a hangover after a tough loss or draining win. Putting the time into understanding how teams will react in these situations is certainly worth the effort.

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