December Games Crucial To March Madness Handicapping
by Robert Ferringo - 12/05/2007
Marquee matchups in November and December do much more than just fill up time between weekend football betting binges. They not only provide a prime profit opportunity for gamblers with knowledge and moxie to tackle these soft early lines, but they also provide bettors with a blueprint for how the season should shake out through conference play and into the Big Dance.
A classic coaching cliché is that "championships are won in the preseason". Well, if you intend to make any money on the college hoops hardwood in February and March - when the lines are firm, the action is frantic, and the emotion is feverish - it is imperative that you follow the sport from the opening tip in November. Just like a shooter hates to come off the bench cold and start jacking up 3-pointers, you don't want to be caught trying to make your first wagers without having tracked the ebbs in flows of teams throughout the year.
Nonconference games in November and December are easily brushed aside or forgotten once the regional rivalry games of league play envelopes the sport in January and February. But these pre-conference tilts are critical to establishing a hoops hierarchy among the teams and conferences and lend important insights into which teams are best prepared to pay out when March Madness rolls around.
Teams like Tennessee, Gonzaga, Davidson, Xavier, Arizona and Memphis have gone out of their way to match themselves up against the best competition in the country early in the year. As a result, we get to see how each of these teams performs in neutral court, tournament, or hostile settings. We get to know who they are and what they're all about. The same goes for mid-major clubs like Butler, Kent State and Valparaiso, schools that may shock the average fan with their play in the NCAA Tournament even though they performed well in similar settings throughout the fall. On the flip side, the weak nonconference slates of schools like Clemson and Stanford make them much more difficult to handicap later on because they were fattening up on cupcakes instead of measuring themselves against equal talent early on.
I'm a big believer that all nonconference games are important in the jigsaw puzzle that is the College Hoops Season. But here are certainly some marquee events that are going to garner more attention from fans and bettors alike. This season has already seen a host of fantastic matchups, incredible endings, and stunning outcomes. But we still have one more month before backyard brawls and key conference clashes will blur the national landscape in favor of provincial preferences. And before that happens here are December's Top 10 remaining nonconference games:
10. Kentucky at Indiana (Dec. 8)
This game loses a bit of its luster if Eric Gordon can't go for the Hoosiers. Kentucky is already without two of its better players - Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper - but they don't have nearly the impact of IU's slick freshman. If Gordon plays and can be effective I'm looking for Indiana to roll over a Kentucky team that's soft on the inside. But if he's limited or ineffective then I see this as a four-point game either way.
9. Wisconsin at Texas (Dec. 29)
I think this one could get really ugly, really quickly. Wisconsin has enough manpower to compete in the rugged Big Ten but I'm not certain they'll be able to handle the running and gunning of a stellar Texas team. The Longhorns have already dumped Tennessee and UCLA this season away from home. They get the Badgers in Austin and I think that the best backcourt in the country - D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams - will run circles around Bucky.
8. Duke vs. Pittsburgh (Dec. 20)
Other than Syracuse, the Blue Devils may have had more success in Madison Square Garden over the past decade than any other club. This Duke team is a lot more chiseled and athletic than last year's version and will be able to go toe-to-toe with a mean Pitt club. Pitt is a bit overrated this early in the season and will likely have settled to the back of the Top 25 by then.
7. Tennessee at Xavier (Dec. 22)
The X-Men have been devastating on their home court early in this season and will get a chance for a marquee victory when the Vols stroll into Cincinnati before Christmas. This game should come down to a one-on-one matchup of two stellar two-guards, UT's Chris Lofton and XU's Stanley Burrell. And if those two play to a stalemate the game will come down to whose big men can bump and grind more effectively.
6. Butler at Southern Illinois (Dec. 28)
This one may not pop up on too many radars but it pits two of the top five or six mid-major programs in the country against one another. A huge factor in this game is going to be the health of Bulldogs forward Pete Campbell, who injured himself against Ohio State. The Dogs are going to need all of their big men to handle Saluki studs Randal Falker and Matt Shaw. Indiana ended SIU's home winning streak at 15 games on Dec. 1, so I don't know how likely it will be that they drop two in the same month.
5. Arizona at Memphis (Dec. 29)
The Tigers were one of my preseason Final Four picks and, to this point in the season, have lived up to expectations. Arizona outscored Memphis by 13 points in the second half in a meeting in Tucson last year, but will be headed to The River City sans three starters and 61 percent of the points from that game. This will be the Wildcats' third game against a Top 10 team before New Year's Eve and they have managed to cover in the previous two. However, I don't think the third time will be a charm.
4. Marquette at Wisconsin (Dec. 8)
This regional rivalry is picking up steam as both clubs maintain their spots among the nation's elite. Wisconsin has taken the last two matchups both straight up and against the spread, including a 14-point win in Madison in 2005, and the Badgers are a stellar 7-3 SU in this series over the past decade. However, I'm looking for the Eagles to score their seventh cover in this matchup in the last 11 years as they have the better guard play and enough inside power to win this one outright.
3. Tennessee at Gonzaga (Dec. 29)
Scoring, scoring, and more scoring. That's what we have in store in this prime nonconference showdown. Both of these teams are deep and talented, and both have shown an aversion to defense at times. This shootout tips off in Key Arena in Seattle, where Gonzaga is a weak 0-3 ATS as a favorite since 2004. This is a game where it's going to be tough to lay points, so if you can get an extra 3-pointer or so I would be backing the dog.
2. Michigan State vs. Texas (Dec. 22)
The Longhorns certainly weren't hesitant to take on the Big Dogs in college hoops this year - even with out Kevin Durant. This game is going to be played at The Palace at Auburn Hills, giving the Spartans a sizeable advantage. Michigan State is 3-0 SU and ATS in The Palace over the past three seasons and also knocked off the Longhorns last year in Madison Square Garden. This Spartans team is more talented, but I think the value will be squarely on Texas in this one.
1. Georgetown at Memphis (Dec. 22)
Here we have a pair of teams that made it to the Elite Eight last year, brought back nine of 10 combined starters, and are both currently ranked in the Top 5 in the nation. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that these teams, style-wise, are polar opposites. The Tigers want to press and get out and run while the Hoyas are going to try to force this one into a slow, methodical pace. Memphis will have a huge advantage playing in front of its home crowd but G-Town has managed to cover 19 of their past 26 road games against a team with a winning home record.
For more info on Robert's members picks, check out his Insider Page here.