For most people, conference tournaments are just a distraction while we wait for what really matters – the setting of the brackets and the start of March Madness. Smart bettors know, though, that watching conference tournaments can yield all sorts of valuable information about how ready teams are to shine in the main event. The big storylines in conference tournaments are obvious – top seeds, star players, and so on. Here, though, are three somewhat more under-the-radar storylines worth keeping an eye on this year:
Distraction factors: There has been more talk in recent weeks surrounding college basketball about FBI investigations and the future of coaches and programs than there has been about play on the court. Rick Pitino was the first very high-profile casualty of this attention to past sins, and all indications that he won’t be alone by the time things are over.
Arizona’s Sean Miller has had to serve a one-game suspension already, and many coaches have been subjected to uncomfortable lines of questioning. Basically, if you are a guy who has had high-level success in the last decade or more and your name isn’t John Beilein then at least some people are assuming you are dirty.
Some teams are facing more scrutiny than others. Michigan State, for example, has been at the heart of the negativity as these issues have coupled with the nasty Larry Nassar situation at the school, and a number of questions about sexual improprieties that have come up around the program. Coach Izzo is scrambling, and it seemed to have an impact in their play on the court. Playing in the world’s largest media market in New York for the Big Ten Tournament, Izzo faced a lot of questioning, and his Spartans were rolled over by the Wolverines in the semifinal. Michigan State had already lost to Michigan once, so it wasn’t an impossible upset, but you have to think that distraction for the endless questions played a factor in the result.
So now, as we head into the main events of the coming week when most of the tournaments happen, we have to wonder if these questions and added scrutiny will have an impact. An obvious target would be Arizona. The Pac-12 is a mess, so the Wildcats, on paper, should cruise through this tournament without breaking a sweat. Will a program under attack rally together or become tentative, though? Many others will also face heightened questioning – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, and so on. We want to pay attention to what impact this has on those teams now, because you can be sure the attention and the questions will be even more intense next week when the real tournament starts.
Serious upstarts: The UConn Huskies came into 2011 Big East Tournament as the ninth seed and a team likely to miss the NCAA Tournament. They won five games in five days, including a narrow victory over top seed Pittsburgh, ranked third in the country at the time, to win the Big East crown and earn a guaranteed tournament bid. And then they ran all the way into National Championship Game, stifling Butler defensively and cutting down the nets. It was a legendary run and provided proof that teams only need to be hot at the right time.
It doesn’t always end in fairy tale fashion like that, though.
In 2006 Syracuse famously rolled through the Big East, also as ninth seed, but then lost in the first round of the tournament. They were doomed from the start, though, as Gerry McNamara had led them through the Big East but was hobbled by a leg injury in the main event.
Regardless, while most of the conference tournaments will be quite chalky, there will be a few surprises – from the mild ones like Michigan winning their second straight Big Ten title as a fifth seed to some that are truly shocking. In each case the public attention will be focused on the winning teams more heading into the NCAA Tournament than it would otherwise have been. It is important, then, that we are paying close attention to get a sense of what the future holds is more like UConn or Syracuse after a shocking win.
A-10: The Atlantic 10 doesn’t get as much attention as it used to since Butler and Xavier left for the Big East. There is some darned good basketball being played there, though, and this year it is perhaps the most important conference tournament for bettors to keep an eye on.
Rhode Island won the regular season and is a lock to be in the NCAA Tournament field regardless of what happens here. St. Bonaventure is rolling and is in decent shape to make the field, too – they have a RPI of 21, and only one team that high has ever missed making the field. They probably have a bit of work to do.
Those two are the class of the field, but Davidson can be dangerous – they won 13 conference games and took the Bonnies to triple overtime last week. And there are several other decent teams that could get hot at the right time, too. This has the potential to be a three-bid conference if everything plays out in a perfect way – St. Bonaventure loses to an upstart in the final. And, at the very least, those top two teams are not ones that anyone would be eager to face in the Big Dance. There will be some good basketball to watch here and potentially some good betting lessons to learn, too.