The Madness continues on the courts as the College Conference Tournaments (CCT's) conclude this week with the major conferences awarding an NCAA Tournament invitation to the conference champion. That includes the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac 12, Big East and American, which currently account for up to 42 of the 68 NCAA Tournament bids.
Some of the conference tournaments are being played with limited or no fans in attendance, as the coronaviris health concern continues. Now in an unprecedented move, the NCAA announced that it will follow the lead of other sporting events and restrict fan access to the 2020 NCAA March Madness Tournament.
March Madness without fans is now a reality.
"While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States. The decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes, " NCAA President Mark Emmert announced on March 11, just five days before selection Sunday.
That's when Gonzaga (31-2) will be awarded a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after the Bulldogs won another West Coast Conference regular season and tournament title this week. According to Joe Lunardi and Bracketology at ESPN, there does not appear to be much debate on the four No. 1 seeds despite a projected wide open NCAA Tournament without dominant teams. Kansas (28-3) and Baylor (26-4) are both likely No. 1 seeds from the Big 12 while Dayton (29-2) from the American Athletic Conference should seal the other No. 1 seed with a AAC conference tournament championship. Those arguing for Florida State (26-5) to be a top seed from the ACC are likely the same people that think head coach Leonard Hamilton should be Coach of the Year. Don't see it, and nor will you see the Seminoles winning a NCAA championship with Hamilton's in-game coaching ability lacking along with questionable decision-making. We've seen this before with FSU embarrassed by lesser teams with superior coaching, which matters at tournament time. Last year's run to the finals by our two teams Virginia and Texas Tech with superior coaching, cohesive play and defensive dominance were why we has such success in NCAA Tournament pools and betting with a near win on Texas Tech at 75-1 to win it all. Yes, we hedged a bit to secure a profit.
Utah State stole a NCAA bid from a potential power program when the Aggies beat San Diego State in the West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas to knock the SDSU Aztecs from a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed to No. 2. The new rating system and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) implemented last year is used this year by the NCAA Tournament Committee instead of the previous RPI. The NET relies on game results, strength of schedule, scoring margin, net offensive and defensive efficiency, game location and the quality of wins and losses in determining NCAA Tournament teams and seedings. We'll know soon if teams like Indiana earn a NCAA at-large bid based on tough scheduling and some noteworthy wins, including over ACC regular season champion Florida State, 80-64.
KenPom has seven Big Ten teams ranked top-10 in its adjusted strength of schedule rating and 10 Big Ten teams in the top-20 including Indiana. That's something to note come tournament time, as the leading online sportsbooks post odds on the games and match-ups with many handicappers not recognizing the stats, strength of schedule ratings and match-ups that matter in sizing up the games and field.
The Big Ten Conference is projected to get 10 teams into the NCAA Tournament field per Lunardi, followed by the Pac 12 (7), Big 12 (6), Big East (6), ACC (5) and SEC (4). St. Mary's is expected to make the NCAA Tournament field as an at-large despite losing to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference championship game. A second consecutive snub would be devastating to the Gaels program.
Many basketball fans, handicappers, bettors, analysts and media members will be watching and wagering on the NCAA Tournament despite the NCAA announcement of no fans in the stands. The volume of betting activity at the leading online sportsbooks and now more legal U.S. sportsbooks is usually tremendous at this time of year. Recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of both conferences and teams helps the astute handicappers and bettors.
Here are some thoughts and key considerations in handicapping college basketball and tournament play. While there have been changes in the college game over the years, the fundamentals of college basketball remain the same when evaluating the teams and match-ups. I have relied on these fundamentals when handicapping and evaluating contests while using using statistical profiles, scheduling, late season situations, meaningful games and match-up analysis. During the NCAA Tournament, there is no home court advantage, and this year few fans in the stands with the NCAA announcement concerning the coronavirus. But sharp bettors will understand the emotional situations, letdown and home court advantage for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) if those continue as planned and with fans in the stands.
The NCAA wanted more scoring in college basketball following near record-low scoring at the end of the 2013 season in which Division 1 basketball saw scoring drop to 67.7 points per game; the lowest since the 1981-82 season. Field-goal accuracy had dipped to 43.3 percent, the lowest level since 1964-65. And 3-point shooting of 33.9 percent was the lowest since the rule was instituted in 1986-87.
The rule changes including shot clock reduction to 30 seconds created just that, although not necessarily for the better of the game. The 30 second shot clock and less clutching and grabbing allowed for more free flowing play with the stronger and more athletic teams gaining an ever greater advantage.
To give you an idea on scoring increase, here are the number of teams that have averaged at least 80 points per game in recent seasons. Yet this season, scoring had dropped at the top with nine teams scoring 80 or more points according to team scoring stats from Team Rankings, which does not include games against non-Division 1 teams. Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring with 87.4 points per game. The stats are taken from scoring at the conclusion of the regular season for power conference teams.
2014-15 – 3 teams
2015-16 – 23 teams
2016-17 – 36 teams
2017-18 – 37 teams
2018-19 – 24 teams
2019-20 - 9 teams
As scoring and possessions have risen with rules changes and reduction of shot clock in recent seasons, the NCAA has apparently accomplished its goal of increased scoring despite a falloff this season. The review of the top shooting teams, defensive and efficiency stats and other key statistics including rebounding will help you at tournament time. Many of those teams with strengths in key categories will be playing during March Madness.
More stats and information you can bet on for the NCAA Tournament.
It’s worth noting that 25 of the last 29 NCAA Tournament champions have been either a #1 or #2 seed. Since 1997, the eventual national champion has been seeded no lower than #3 in every year except 2014 when UCONN pulled the shocker as a #7 seed. Two years ago a Cinderella made the Final Four when No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago shocked all fans and experts in their exciting run through the tournament with each of their first three tournament wins by two points or less.
So the elite-level teams with the strongest statistical profiles often win the NCAA Tournament and make the Final Four, and the best teams with fairly specific statistical parameters get to the Elite Eight and beyond.
Still, in the elimination format of the NCAA Tournament and any postseason game, one poor stretch of play or a scoring drought can quickly end a team’s season. The variance of 3-point shooting will cost some teams in the NCAA Tournament and post season play, and help other pull an upset.
The difficulty for many handicappers and bettors is breaking down the match-ups with less familiar teams. Evaluating the statistical information, interpreting the data and analyzing how teams and players will perform when facing a different level of class opponent often keeps bettors away from unknown teams. Many will bet on the bigger favorites and name brands without knowing the strength and ability of some of the mid-major teams.
The intangibles of coaching, leadership, experience, team chemistry, injuries and riding momentum are part of the process in uncovering information to assist you when betting. But remember, even the top teams suffer off nights against inferior opponents as No. 1 seed Virginia did two years ago in becoming the first No. 1 seed to lost to a No. 16 seed. The Cavaliers bounced back last year as a No. 1 seed to win the NCAA Tournament with the exceptional coaching of Tony Bennett and strong chemistry and leadership that included an overtime win over No. 3 seed Texas Tech - a game that saw millions of dollars change hands in betting at the leading online sportsbooks.
The most value in the NCAA Tournament and postseason party lies in the opening week of action, and it’s up to us to determine where the value lies along with the strengths and weaknesses of the teams. The technical side (relevant patterns) of the equation comes in evaluating situations and past performance such as a team’s strength of schedule, performance playing on the road, ATS results and level of play versus quality teams and understanding contrary patterns.
We can discuss quality guard play, interior post presence and rebounding, 3-point and free throw shooting, pace of play and a go-to-guy in any match-up. And strong shooting will prevail in a number of tournament games. But in so many contests, and especially competitively-lined games, the team that defends the best, rebounds and takes care of the basketball can often overcome the opponent or their own off-shooting night. And in no sport is coaching more important than in college basketball, and especially in postseason and tournament preparation and in-game play with adjustments.
More March Madness and NCAA Tournament coverage will be provided in this space as the brackets are unveiled and seeds determined.
You can bet on it.
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industry's most insightful analysts. Read more great insights from Jay here and follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay