Conference Tournament Teams and Motivation
by Trevor Whenham - 03/12/2008
We are in the heart of Championship Week, and everywhere you turn there is another tournament game. Handicapping these tournaments can be a real challenge. That, of course, is true for every college basketball game, but it can be especially true in conference tournaments because teams have different motivations for the tournament. Teams that have struggled all year know that they probably won't win, so they might just be looking to end the season. Teams on the bubble, or those that feel like they are competitive, could step their games up in order to get a chance to dance. Teams that have their tournament bids and seedings basically locked up may not be as focused or hungry as they could or should be. Trying to get into the minds of teams can be very challenging and time consuming. You can easily break the teams down into groups, though. Here are three different types of teams that are worth looking at in conference tournaments because they can be very profitable:
Hungry, but not quite good enough - There are a lot of teams that had a pretty good season, but which have never really been considered for a tournament bid. They probably aren't right at the top of their conference, they might have a flaw that will turn the selection committee off, and their conference won't have enough bids to get them in. If the teams are playing well, though, they probably feel disrespected, and the conference tournament is the last and best place to show that they deserve better. In general, the types of teams you are looking for here are teams with solid winning records, decent ATS performance, and good recent form.
The perfect example of a team in this group is San Diego. They were a decent 18-13 on the year heading into the conference tournament including a win over Kentucky, had an impressive 11-3 conference record, and were among the best teams in the country against the spread with a 21-9 mark. They were never seriously considered for a tournament bid because of their spotty non-conference record, and because they had three losses to the two teams in the conference who are going to the tournament - Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. They had covered eight of 10 down the stretch, though, and were clearly the third best team in the conference - there were only three teams with winning conference records. On top of it, both Saint Mary's and Gonzaga were secure in their tournament bid, so they could potentially be vulnerable. As it turns out, they were. San Diego beat both of them on the way to the WCC title and an NCAA Tournament bid.
Other teams that could fit into this group with games left to play could include Nevada, San Diego State, and Southern Mississippi.
Looking to be done with the season - For some teams the season could have ended months ago and no one would have minded - the players, coaches or fans. Either nothing went right at any point, or else things started well but the season hasn't ended nearly as well. As a general rule, these teams perform in the tournaments about exactly as you would expect them - badly. Upsets often happen in the conference tournaments, but not very often in the first round. Boldly picking an upset, or even a close game, isn't usually a great idea. The list of teams in this group are long - just look for teams with losing records, form that hasn't improved significantly recently, and poor ATS performance.
Coasting to the tournament - North Carolina is the perfect example here because they have nothing to lose. With their win over Duke to end the season they wrapped up a No. 1 seed. If they lost their first game in the conference tournament they would still be a No. 1 seed. They have nothing to gain from winning it all. On top of it all, they have players like Ty Lawson who need to be healthier in the tournament than they have been for the past month, and the public will be all over them because they always are. I'm not suggesting that the Tar Heels will intentionally lay down and quit - Roy Williams wouldn't let them. It's almost guaranteed, though, that they won't be playing with the same passion and intensity that they will be a week later, and as such they may not be in the position to cover a spread that might be reasonable during the regular season.
Besides North Carolina, teams like UCLA, Georgetown, and Duke fit into this category. One team that clearly doesn't is Memphis. People are skeptical enough of the Tigers as it is, so a loss in the Conference USA tournament, especially against anyone other than UAB or Houston, would probably hurt them with their seeding.