College Basketball Handicapping: Preparing for the NCAA Tournament
by Trevor Whenham - 03/12/2009
We still have to get through conference tournaments and Selection Sunday before we can start handicapping the NCAA Tournament. So much in that tournament obviously depends upon seedings and pairings, so you can't really afford to make real decisions now until you see who and where teams play. Just because you can't do that, though, doesn't mean you can't, or shouldn't, be doing anything. While you are keeping an eye on conference tournaments, this is a very good time to get prepared for March Madness. Everything will be so crazy and hectic next week that the more you can do to prepare this week, the more prepared you can be. Here are five things you can do this week to get ready to really have a good showing in the tournament:
Get to know the Top 40 - Anything can happen, as teams like Davidson and George Mason have shown us in recent years. A vast majority of the teams that are going to win games and make an impact, though, are currently ranked within the AP Top 40 (The Top 25, plus the Top 15 teams that are listed as having also received votes). It might not be possible to get to know something about all 65 teams that will be playing, but by getting to know those of the top 40 that will be in the NCAA Tournament you will have a god portion of the information you need. As you are getting to know these teams there are three things I like to do.
First, I split the teams up into three different styles of play according to whether a team's strength is mostly defensive, well-balanced, and mostly offensive. You can do this using conference and overall rankings. It's not a foolproof approach, but it gives you a good start, and it gives you an initial sense of how a game might go when two teams meet. Second, I like to familiarize myself with the two best players on each team. For many of you this information will already be on hand for several teams. I have found that getting familiar with these names and some of their attributes helps me know a team better, and it also helps me recognize the significance if I hear or read that a player is hurting, struggling, or not at his best. Finally, I like to get a sense of the recent form of a team. Conference tournaments are somewhat relevant, but the format and varying motivations make them tough to judge. I am personally far more interested in how the team has finished their last five games of the regular season. Struggles there can be a precursor for underachievement in the NCAA Tournament.
Look at automatic bid winners - As every conference tournament ends - big or small - I like to take a couple of minutes to look at the winner and get to know them. I want to see what I know about the team, and whether they are at all relevant in the tournament. For example, Gonzaga and VCU won their conferences, and I will obviously want to know more about both because they could be dangerous. On the other hand, I couldn't care less about Chattanooga - they won the Southern Conference, but they were just 15-16 in the regular season, and won't do anything in the tournament.
Compare regular season standings to conference tourney performance - As I said before, I don't like to put a whole lot of merit into conference tournaments -- anything can happen, and they don't necessary reflect the true values of teams. They can be useful in at least one big way, though. I like to compare team's conference tournament performance to their regular season standings to spot teams that do significantly better or worse than their conference ranking would indicate. That doesn't mean that I would totally rule out a team that won the conference in the regular season but was upset in the first round of the conference tournament, and I also wouldn't get all excited about a team that comes into their tournament ranked seventh and wins it all. It just means that any team that does much better or much worse is one that may not be as they appear, and which needs to be looked at more closely.
Create your 'winner's list' - I know I said before that I don't like to pick winners before I know who is playing who. There is an exception, though. I have found t a useful exercise over the years to develop my own winner's list - the list of teams from which I think the winner of the tournament is going to emerge. In other words, the elite of the elite. This year there are six teams on my list, but other years it has been as many as nine. I find that making up this list and turning over the possibilities in my mind does more to get me ready for the tournament, and comfortable with the teams that matter, than any other single thing I do to prepare.