Handicapping Mid-Major Tournaments
I'm as excited as anybody that March Madness officially begins Tuesday night with the first postseason tournament of the 2018-19 college basketball campaign. That's the quarterfinal round of the Horizon League event that begins at conference sites. More mid-major tournaments get going this week, before everyone else across the land plays next week.
Handicapping these mid-major tourneys can be different than handicapping the bigger conferences. Many of these leagues will only get ONE spot in the Big Dance. So, the best team in the conference has THE MOTIVATION FACTOR on its side in addition to the most dynamic PLAYMAKERS AND GAMEBREAKERS. This won't be like next week when a bunch of ACC or Big 10 teams already have their tickets cashed. Motivation is a much smaller factor when not much beyond pride is at stake.
So, your first obvious step for any mid-major tournament is to determine who is safely in the Big Dance already...who is on the bubble and needs to impress...or who is nowhere near the bubble and will have to win the tournament to get in.
It's been a down year in the Horizon League. Nobody is even near the bubble. Wright State and Northern Kentucky are the favorites, having shared the regular season crown. That won't help them get into the Dance. Only one bid here.
Later this week, the West Coast Conference will start here in Las Vegas. Top seed Gonzaga is not only a lock to go Dancing, but probably a lock to get a #1 seed after winning and covering at St. Mary's Saturday night. St. Mary's and San Francisco are in bubble discussions, which means either is looking to at least reach the final to play in the NCAA's. Everyone else will have to run the table, which is going to be tough with Gonzaga sitting where all the food is!
Make that kind of assessment for every league before you do anything else. You must know what's at stake.
Second, determine if any of the teams are favored by the location. This can be a big factor in the smallest tournaments because one of the schools is usually a host. Home court advantage is usually worth three points in college basketball. That's a big deal when relatively even teams are playing each other. Know who should get the full handicapping reward for hosting, and who might deserve 1-2 points for a proximity edge. (Kansas usually plays well in Kansas City when the Big 12 event is there. Look for similar situations in this week's events.)
Third, try to spot teams who have already "thrown in the towel" on their season so you can bet against them. The coaches and players will say all the right things to the media about taking advantage of this "second chance" to save their season. But, if the players hate each other, or hate the coach, all that's just talk. Some of the easiest winners every postseason (this week and next) come from fading teams who have checked out. Neutral court point spreads, in particular, are smaller and more manageable for favorites. Oddsmakers just can't get it right when chemistry disasters don't bother to show up.
Now, once you've fully grasped the "intangibles" it's time to focus on nuts-and-bolts skill set factors. To me, the most important items to study for tournament play are the following:
*Defense, particularly on 2-point shots
I normally put a lot of weight on PLAYMAKERS AND GAMEBREAKERS. But, that can be a problem later in tournaments if fatigue becomes a factor. It can be tough for one college kid to carry his team on his back over three games in three days, or four games in four day. Maybe bet these stars in their openers. After that, focus on teams with proven depth in later rounds.
You always hear that "defense and rebounding wins championships." I think too much can be made of that at times. That's why I emphasize PLAYMAKERS. But, that doesn't mean KELSO STURGEON is going to invest his money in lousy defenses, or rosters that are weak on the boards. Limit your portfolio to teams who are at least above average in defense and rebounding. Save your biggest bets for the rare spots where everything lines up perfectly.
Oh...it's a good idea to bet hard AGAINST teams with soft defenses later in a tournament. Fatigue will only make those soft defenses softer. Sometimes a team like this will shoot lights out in their first one or two games. But, they'll get tired defensively just as they run into a top-notch opponent...and lose by 20-30 points because their shots stop falling.
Many of you regular students here in my College of Advanced Sports Betting and Handicapping don't need to hear the following warning. But, some of you newcomers will. Don't try to force action just because you love betting tournaments. Betting "March Madness" isn't fun if you dig an 0-3 or 1-4 hole in relatively minor conferences just because you imagined yourself a postseason expert.
If you've already been following the Horizon League, or the Ohio Valley Conference, or the Missouri Valley or Metro-Atlantic, it's okay to bet more aggressively. You've specialized in those, and it's time to take advantage of what you know. If you're starting from scratch in those lesser leagues, be very conservative out of the gate.
If you'd like some help making nightly decisions, KELSO STURGEON'S top plays can always be purchased at this website by credit card. Questions about extended service and combination packages can be answered by calling my office at 1-800-755-2255 during normal business hours. Be sure to ask about combination packages with basketball and baseball when you call.
The Dean of Sports Handicapping greatly appreciates your attendance and hard work. You've spent the past few months preparing for March. It's finally here. Make the most of it!
See you Friday for our next college basketball discussion.