We are getting close to that magical time of year. The time when people rejoice and life seems like it just couldn't get any better. I'm talking, of course, about the start of conference play in college basketball. Nonconference play can be fun, and we get some marquee matchups, games played in exotic locations, and other reasons for excitement. It all only barely matters, though. It's just an appetizer. The real season begins when conference play gets rolling and every game because crucially important. Lose in November and you can almost always shake it off. Lose in January, though, and it could be fatal.
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Betting on conference play is, in my eyes, 100 times better than nonconference play as well. Why? Well, let's look at five differences and the adjustments bettors need to make to be successful:
Familiarity: Teams play some rivals in nonconference play, but they also face a lot of random opponents that fit into the schedule. Each year they play teams they haven't ever played or haven't played in years. Sometimes they play teams they have never even heard of.
That all changes heading into conference play, though. You played every team you are playing this year last year, and depending on your conference you will play some or all of your conference foes twice in one year. You know their secrets and flaws. You have seen their best players. You know their playing style and coaching tendencies.
Teams are generally able to be more prepared for opponents in conference play, which means that they are less likely to be caught off-guard, and that makes things more generally predictable. Familiarity also means that games can be more emotionally charged - it is much easier to get angry playing a school from 100 miles away that is trying to steal your conference title than it is playing some random school 2,000 miles away you know you'll never see again.
Intensity: Teams can play with high intensity at times in nonconference play - games against major geographical or historical rivals, games against ranked opponents, or games in tournament finals, for example. Often, though, teams pay at less than full enthusiasm - how worried or excited can you get about Sonoma State on a Tuesday in November?
In conference play, though, every loss hurts and every wins counts. Teams are going to be playing full to their best most nights because they can't afford to lose any night. When you don't have to worry about acting as an amateur psychologist and guessing at motivation it's much easier to judge what to truly expect from a team.
Similarity of styles: In nonconference play you can see teams that play fundamentally different styles of play squaring off. It can be a headache for handicappers because you not only have to look at who is better but also who is most likely to dictate the style of play. Guess wrong and you likely aren't even close in your prediction of the game outcomes.
In conference play, though, teams from a particular conference tend to play a similar style of play. There will be some differences, but for the most part most teams play somewhat similar in order to compete with the other teams in the conference. That makes it easier to assess strengths and weaknesses on an apples-to-apples basis - not the apples-to-pineapple comparisons we are forced to make far more often in nonconference play.
Freshmen more experienced: When freshmen hit the court - even the most talented - they are in for a serious shock as they adjust to a dramatically higher level of play than they are used to. Once conference play rolls around, though, those youngsters have played a dozen or so games and are much more used to what they are asked of. That typically makes them more efficient.
Coaches have also had more time to work with the new kids, so they are better at allocating their resources and hiding their weaknesses. In short, it is far easier to evaluate a freshman and assess what they are going to do in January than November, and that makes things generally easier for handicappers.
Betting volume increases: Conference play corresponds with the end of the college football season and the slowing down and eventual end of the NFL season. Football is like a magnet for bettor attention and money, but as it ends more bettors are drawn towards college basketball action. That means that betting volumes increase - especially in major conferences and for games with ranked or higher-profile teams. As betting volumes grow lines become more honest, which means that bettors need to be more aware of where the number should be and if there is value where it is.
Injuries: As a general rule, the more games a team has played the more chances their players have had to get hurt and the more chance that injuries are a factor on what the team is able to do. It's not just players that aren't playing that are significant, though. The more games teams play the more likely that players are banged up and playing at less than their best.
By watching teams and boxscores you can pick out players who are unable to perform as expected. If your expectations for that player are more realistic than the betting public's because your impression of their health is more accurate then you can give yourself an edge.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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