Always look at the big picture.
If you want a tip on how to handicapping college basketball there are dozens of insights I can give you: always bet against the public in smaller conferences, don’t be afraid of some road favorites, stay away from teams with bad point guards or shaky bench coaches, etc. But one tip that I would give out to a college basketball handicapper is to always keep the big picture in mind.
And in college basketball betting it doesn’t get any bigger than the NCAA Tournament.
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Below are my initial NCAA Tournament Field Projections and Predictions. I have a complete breakdown of what I think the Race for 68 looks like with some NCAA Tournament field projections. Why am I doing this in the first week of December? Because in my mind it is always important to analyze four macro-components of college teams:
1. What were a team’s expectations by the general public and media bobbleheads?
2. What were my own expectations of this team?
3. What has this team shown me and accomplished to this point in the season?
4. What do I expect them to do from this point on?
Since every one of the 345 Div. I men’s college basketball team start the year with the same goal – to make the NCAA Tournament – I think that projecting the field and keeping an eye on who and how clubs jostle for postseason slots is an important exercise for keeping a strong long-term focus. It is too easy for a bettor to get fooled by a good or bad week from a certain team. Instead, I try to view the whole college basketball landscape and keep in mind that success and failure by any one team or league is always relative to what is going on in the rest of the country.
Here are my first NCAA Tournament field Projections and Predictions as of Dec. 1:
Atlantic-10 (Projected Teams: 3)
In: Xavier, St. Louis
Bubble: Temple, Dayton
Skinny: This league should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the mediocrity in the power conferences. Xavier and St. Louis are both no joke and they should stage a killer contest for the regular season crown. Temple is just a hair below them and teams like Dayton, St. Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure and Duquesne are just waiting to trip the top-tier teams up. There will be a high level of basketball played in the A-10 this season and I just hope that people aren’t fooled when the X-Men and Billikens stroll into March with a few more losses than you expect. This conference is very deep and the teams that do come out of here will be battle-tested.
ACC (Projected Teams: 5)
In: Duke, North Carolina
Bubble: Clemson, Virginia, Florida State, N.C. State, Virginia Tech
Skinny: In case you weren’t sure, this league sucks. I have been screaming from the rooftops that the ACC has been in serious decline for years now and no one has listened. But it is impossible for Duke and North Carolina to continue to hide the rest of the league’s shortcomings any more. This group was trounced by the Big Ten in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, losing the aggregate conference score for the third year in a row. And outside of Florida State and Virginia I really don’t see anyone that I think is going to put together the resume to be a legitimate tournament team. This league is wretched and they don’t deserve more than four bids. But with an inflated field I think that one of the bottom feeders will beat out a Pac-12 or Big 12 team for the spot. And five teams dancing will perpetuate the myth that this is one of the top leagues in the country this year.
Big 12 (Projected Teams: 6)
In: Kansas, Missouri, Baylor
Bubble: Oklahoma State, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M
Skinny: This league boasts a lot of top-end skill and athleticism. But all of the teams in the top half of the league are severely flawed. Missouri has absolutely no inside presence (although they have the best backcourt in the country; think Villanova from about three or four years ago). Baylor has no guard play. Kansas has no experience. I do think Texas A&M will step up and Texas has too much raw talent not to be a factor. But the team to watch as a sleeper is Oklahoma. New coach Lon Kruger has them playing well and a top-half finish in the league, along with a win at Cincinnati on Dec. 29, would put them in the discussion. Oklahoma State is not a team I am projecting in the dance. But with nonconference games left against Pitt, New Mexico, Alabama and Virginia Tech they have by far the best opportunity of the bubble teams to pick up some quality wins.
Big East (Projected Teams: 8)
In: Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Connecticut, Pittsburgh
Bubble: Georgetown, West Virginia, Cincinnati, Villanova, St. John’s
Skinny: Last year the Big East put an astonishing 11 teams in the NCAA Tournament. This year it wouldn’t be stunning to me if just over half of that (six teams) ended up in the field. The teams I have listed as “In” are as solid as they come, with only Marquette still having some work to do. I also think at least two of the teams on the bubble will play their way in. But the Big East is down this year and nothing can be taken for granted. This league has witnessed as much turnover from last season as any I can ever remember and outside of Syracuse and Connecticut I wouldn’t say that there are many teams that I can realistically see winning in the tournament’s second weekend. The Beast will secure teams on reputation. But this league is a mess right now.
Big Ten (Projected Teams: 8)
In: Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan
Bubble: Illinois, Indiana, Northwestern, Michigan State
Skinny: As much as I hate to admit it – because this is perpetually the most overrated league in the country – the Big Ten is probably the best conference in the nation right now. As such, some of their middle-tier teams should get more consideration come Selection Sunday. I don’t think I have to explain any of the teams I have “in” (although Michigan is one that could falter). But these bubble teams, on their own merits, are going to have sketchy resumes by the end of February. Illinois gets shots at Gonzaga, UNLV and Missouri. Northwestern plays Baylor and Creighton. Indiana takes on Kentucky. But of those six games I’ll be surprised if the Big Ten teams win more than one of them. And without any marquee victories these teams are going to skate by simply on the strength of the Big Ten overall. Look at Michigan State: their win over Florida State, a middle-tier team from the fourth- or fifth-best league in the land, could end up being their best nonconference win but this team will still be dancing.
Conference USA (Projected Teams: 1)
Bubble: Marshall, Central Florida, Tulsa, Memphis
Skinny: I don’t believe that this league will garner an at-large bid unless Memphis can take at least two wins from their tilts against Miami, Louisville, Georgetown and Tennessee. Marshall has a nice win over Cincinnati and Central Florida beat Connecticut, but I don’t know that either team will have done enough on the whole come March 12 to earn serious consideration. This league is going to be exceptional this year and I think the four teams at the top will be battling all season long. But attrition will take its toll on the league’s national profile and in the end I think only one survives to go dancing while the others will end up tearing up some of the lower-tier tournaments.
Missouri Valley (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: Indiana State, Wichita State, Northern Iowa
Skinny: This Creighton team is absolutely legit and if I were projecting the NCAA Tournament bracket right now I would have them in the Sweet 16. They still have a tricky nonconference slate, but when the dust settles this team will have done enough to garner at-large status. However, the No. 1 seed seems to rarely win the league tournament so I think that the door will stay open for either ISU or WSU to sneak in there and steal a bid from one of the major conferences.
Mountain West (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: San Diego State, Boise State, New Mexico
Skinny: UNLV’s win over North Carolina is a golden ticket and has essentially already punched their ticket. But they have the talent and the schedule to play for a No. 4 seed (or higher) and they may be one of the two or three best teams west of the Mississippi. SDSU and New Mexico are doing it on guts and on milking the little experience they do still have. And keep an eye on a Boise State team that is scoring the ball at will. The Rebels are in. But I think the Aztecs and Lobos are left to fight for one potential opening with Boise lying in wait as a spoiler.
Pac-10 (Projected Teams: 5)
Bubble: Washington, Stanford, Arizona, Oregon State, Oregon
Skinny:After an embarrassing two-team showing in last year’s NCAA Tournament the Pac-10 is ready to re-affirm its position as a Big Six Power Conference. Cal is a very balanced and athletic team and executes as well as anyone. They won’t falter. Washington and Arizona will be fine and will enter the field as they steadily improve. But I think at least one, and potentially two, of the “sleeper” teams in this league will play their way in. I think Stanford is a very sound team and as long as they can stay in the upper-tier of the league I think that they will be the fourth bid from the Pac-12.
SEC (Projected Teams: 5)
In: Alabama, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida
Bubble: Mississippi State, Tennessee
Skinny: I think it would take a serious collapse for either of the top four teams to play their way out of the field at this point. All four of the “in” teams are potential Sweet 16 teams and the SEC is as solid as it has been in years. I do not believe Mississippi State can hold it together, mentally and emotionally, for a full season. But their win of the Coaches vs. Cancer Tournament to start the year has them in the national discussion. And with an inflated field I think it would take a lot more for them to play themselves out than to play themselves in.
WAC (Projected Teams: 1)
Bubble:New Mexico State, Utah State
Skinny: I think that this will be just a one-bid league this year, but this should be one of the best conference races in the country this year. NMSU hammered New Mexico and they took Arizona to the limit. Utah State has made three straight NCAA Tournaments and they have ruled this conference for the last half-decade. Nevada could be a sleeper if they pull their heads out of their asses.
WCC (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: BYU, St. Mary’s
Skinny:The WCC is actually as balanced as it has been in three years and I don’t know that there is a clear-cut favorite heading into league play. Gonzaga has been the best team so far but their guards are incredibly young and unproven. Ditto BYU, but they have the size to counter the Bulldogs. St. Mary’s has the best perimeter play but they have had better teams than this year’s miss The Dance before. And with teams like LMU, Santa Clara and San Fran ready to punch holes in some resumes this league could end up with just one bid simply out of attrition.
Big West (Projected Teams: 2)
Bubble: Long Beach State
Skinny: LBSU hasn’t done enough to put themselves in the field just yet. But a win over Pittsburgh looks great on a resume and the 49ers still have some chances (at Kansas, at North Carolina, vs. Xavier) to make their case for deserving a spot in the Dance. That game against Xavier, especially, is huge. LBSU is the Big West favorites but UC-Santa Barbara is no joke and Cal-Fullerton and Cal-Poly are two trapdoors. However, because I feel I have been more than gracious to the BCS leagues with my projections I will call for LBSU to be the last time in the field with an at-large bid.
Automatic Bid Leagues (Projected Teams: 18):
America East – Boston University
Atlantic Sun – Belmont
Big Sky – Weber State
Big South – UNC-Asheville
Colonial – George Mason
Horizon – Cleveland State
Ivy League – Harvard
Metro – Iona
Mid-American – Buffalo
MEAC – Morgan State
Northeast – Central Connecticut
Ohio Valley – Austin Peay
Patriot League – Bucknell
Southern – Davidson
Southland – UT-San Antonio
SWAC – Mississippi Valley State
Summit – Oakland
Sun Belt – Denver
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