Jay Bilas has a great line for how he breaks down teams and their NCAA Tournament-worthiness: "Who have you played, and who have you beaten." It's simple. It's straightforward. Yet it also begs for the type of insight that most fringe or surface college basketball fans either don't have the time or capacity for.
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The same concept - that of relative schedule strength - is a key one for handicapping college hoops. Plenty of teams head into conference play with gaudy records. But if that 14-2 mark was built on a foundation of wins over North Florida and Furman than you can expect that house of cards to crumble in late January and February. Conversely, there might be several teams out there a putrid record that was forged against the top competition in the land. These teams are always undervalued and always dangerous once we get into conference play.
Strength of schedule is actually a far more ambiguous thing to calculate than just some numbers on paper. A schedule is almost a living, breathing organism. It's not just who you play, but when you play them and where. There are letdown spots. There are look-ahead situations. There are injuries and things like long holiday layoffs. Travel is a factor.
Generally, I handicap each team's schedule when I approach them for a daily matchup. I try to take a look at how they've been playing and whom they've been playing.
Below I've listed eight teams that I think could be worth keeping an eye on as we head into league play. None of them will be NCAA Tournament teams and I don't even know if any of them will finish with winning overall records. But these are eight teams that have played crippling slates and are teams that I think might have some juice as the season wears on:
Chattanooga (4-9 overall, 3-6 ATS, No. 3 SOS)
The Mocs wasted no time jumping into the fire this season. They opened at Tennessee (39-point loss) and at Missouri (28-point loss) before going to Puerto Rico for the San Juan Shootout. They were outclassed on the beach, covering against Memphis before getting run by USC and Fairfield. But over the last month this team has shown signs of life. They nearly won at Davidson, losing 100-95 while easily covering a 23-point spread, and they were the first team to beat Niagara, scoring a 15-point win as an underdog. After playing 10 of 13 games on the road they get four of the next five at home. Look for a little run out of this club.
Idaho State (4-11 SU, 4-8 ATS, No. 8 SOS)
The Bengals have been one of my favorite plays of the nonconference schedule and they didn't disappoint in select instances. They covered three straight at Wazzou, against Utah, and at Wisconsin. They have since fallen on hard times, dropping six of eight games outright and losing six of seven against the spread. But any team that can beat Utah and lose by just two points in Madison has some talent. Their first three losses of the year were in overtime and six of their last eight losses have come against teams ranked in the Top 55. This team won't be much as a favorite but should be a great Big Sky underdog.
Valparaiso (4-11 SU, 4-6 ATS, No. 19 SOS)
This is a team that I do not like, but I can't deny that they are showing signs of life. Valpo was supposed to return four starters and a key reserve from last year's 22-win team. Instead they brought back two starters, the reserve transferred, and another starter was injured. Mix in nine games against the Top 150 and it has been a bit much. They had covered three of four before dropping games to Butler and UW-Milwaukee. But they played tough for about 35 minutes in both contests.
Drexel (5-7 SU, 7-4 ATS, No. 22 SOS)
Avert your eyes if you actually like offense. Drexel's game plan is to throw the ball at the basket and go get it. But this is as tough and as physical of a team as you are going to find and they haven't ducked anyone. Eight of their 12 games have come against teams in the Top 135 and they have matched up with Georgetown and Memphis. They have covered six of nine so the value isn't prime. But the bottom line is that this is a good underdog because they'll be involved in a lot of low-scoring grinders.
Toledo (2-11 SU, 3-6 ATS, No. 24 SOS)
I have bitten the dust right along side this pathetic excuse for a team. With four starters back from a team that was surprisingly strong at home last year I thought that the Rockets would be an active puppy. And they were, covering their first two games at Florida and at Xavier. It's been all downhill since and they are 0-5 ATS in their last five games. But there are signs of life. They will routinely be a double-digit dog, even at home, over the next few weeks and they are just scrappy enough to stay inside some of those lines. Six of their losses have come against Top 60 teams and they have played just three games outside of the Top 125. Look for a bounce out of the Rockets.
Oregon (6-8 SU, 5-8 ATS, No. 26 SOS)
I don't think this team is very good, but I do think that they might be a strong wager in the Pac-10 this year. The Pac-10 is a very strong conference, but it lacks dominating teams. Oregon is already in the basement and may be one of the three worst teams in the league. But they still have some young talent, they still have a strong home court, and having already played UNC, Texas, Kansas State, St. Mary's, USC, and UCLA, so they have already tested themselves against the best of the best. It's tough to overcome their name recognition, but I think this could be a decent "buy low" team.
Massachusetts (5-8 SU, 2-7 ATS, No. 31 SOS)
UMass is another team with strong name recognition to squares and they have a marquee upset over Kansas on their resume. But after back-to-back blowouts against Top 60 foes Vandy and Houston, the Minutemen bandwagon is empty. This team lost a ton of talent and leadership from last year. Throw in this rough schedule and you can understand why they have been streaky. They have a six-game winning streak and a four-game losing streak already to their credit, so make sure to get on the roller coaster on the way up. This team has four guys averaging double-figures and is much better offensively than they've shown. They could be a solid dog in the A-10.
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Florida International (5-11 SU, 4-9 ATS, No. 58 SOS)
This team was supposed to return four starters from last year's solid squad. But instead, they have not played a single game with all five projected starters and played six of 14 games without ANY starters. The result is one of the worst offensive teams in Div. I. But they have also played one-third of their schedule against Top 30 teams. The good news is that they have do-it-all stud Alex Galindo back. The bad news is that they are still waiting on Tremayne Russell and J.C. Otero (mid-January) as well as Russell Hicks and Josue Soto (mid-February). The worse news is a rough upcoming stint against Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic. However, this is a team to keep an eye on and I guarantee they are a moneymaker in February.
More information on Ferringo's college basketball picks? Check out his Insider's Page here.