Expert College Basketball Handicapping: Nonconference vs, Conference Play
This is the month of good cheer, presents and family - often too much family. And in college basketball it is also the time when we flip from the nonconference season to conference play. In so many ways it is like the conference season is a whole different sport. Nonconference play is about big challenges and incredibly easy games. About highs and lows. Ebbs and flows. It is hard for a rhythm of any kind to be established. But conference play is different. More stable. Steadier. And a lot easier to handicap, in a lot of cases.
But in order to take advantage of the differences, you need to be aware of how conference play is different than what came before. Here's a look at six ways that conference play is a new animal:
Experience: This year, as is so often the case now, we have so many young players who are making massive waves very early in their likely short college careers. Zion Williamson. R.J. Barrett. Iggy Brazdeikis. The kids at Duke. Kansas. North Carolina. And even the massively underperforming young squad at Kentucky. So many of those guys are playing incredible basketball already, and now they head into conference play with more experience, having seen adversity and hopefully learned how to deal with it. When kids are as talented as these guys are, it doesn't take much experience to make them exponentially more dangerous. Talent has never been an issue with these guys, but more experience means more consistency. That's a nightmare for teams that have to play these young guys in conference play - especially the squads that have to play them twice.
Similarity: Part of what makes nonconference play both fun and frustrating is the variance in style that teams can face. One game they might play a major power that plays a slow team. Then the next game they might face a mid-major who presses relentlessly. It can be all over the place, so every game it feels like we have to guess how a team is going to react to something new. In conference play there is less unexpected. Most teams in a conference play a somewhat similar style. And those that don't are familiar to teams, so it is easier to know what to expect.
Familiarity: It is not uncommon for teams in nonconference play to be meeting for the first time, or maybe just for the first time in a long time. It's hard for teams to adjust to an unknown, and it's hard for us to know how they will handle that adjustment. The nice thing about conference play is that every team plays every other team in their conference at least once and often twice. That takes away the advantage of surprise for teams, but it also means that they likely won't be surprised by their opponents, either. Familiarity is our friend as bettors.
Intensity: In nonconference play the highest-profile games can be very intense as teams look to pile up wins that will matter on Selection Sunday. But for every game like that, there are two against North Nowhere State that no one could possibly care about. In conference play every game matters. When you play the weak links in the conference, you want to be sure you win and earn some style points while doing so. And when you play the big teams, you want to prove yourself and keep up in the race for the postseason. When things are more intense, the players play with consistently higher effort. When the effort is higher, it is easier to compare teams because they are playing closer to their potential and likely playing with a little more consistency.
Banged up: We've talked positives up to this point, but it's not all good. By the time conference play starts, these players have played a fair bit of basketball and done a bunch of travelling. Their bodies are starting to show the wear and tear of the season, and that only intensifies as conference play gets started. Teams that are already struggling to stay healthy can really get in trouble at this point.
Betting: Aside from the big games between high-profile teams, the only people who are paying attention during nonconference season are hardcore bettors. But the turn of the calendar not only means that March is drawing closer but also that football season is ending. Football is the undisputed king of the betting world, so when that action dries up then casual bettors need somewhere else to spend their money. Action increases significantly as conference play advances, and a lot of that money isn't exactly sharp. The more dumb money there is in a pool, the better it is for the people who at least try to have a clue.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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