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Some Myths in Conference Tournaments

by Chuck Sippl |  Published: Mar 22, 2005


Conference tournaments are one of my favorite parts of the college basketball season. The fight for NCAA tourney berths in the mid-major conferences offers a great preview of those teams' potential for later postseason games in the NCAA tourney and the NIT against major conference foes. And in the high-profile leagues, the also-ran and "bubble" teams fight furiously for a chance to gain a bid in the NCAA tournament, while many of the upper-level teams play to gain favorable tournament seedings.

One of the more interesting angles to me has always been the revenge factor in conference tourney play. With the recent expansion of many leagues, most don't play true round-robin schedules anymore. Many teams meet only once during conference play, often very early in the season. Thus, the revenge factor in conference tournaments isn't as uniform as it used to be, when just about every team in a league played each of the others on a home-and-home basis. With this in mind, let's take a look at revenge teams versus the pointspread in conference tournaments.

The conventional wisdom holds that the avenging team should have a nice edge versus the spread in postseason. Analysis, however, reveals that the conventional wisdom is overrated. During the past four years, teams seeking revenge for their only loss in the regular season, or a loss in the most recent meeting, are only 289-284-10 versus the spread, which is nearly fifty-fifty. That's what I mean when I say revenge can often be overrated, and it is too simplistic of a notion to be profitable in and of itself. Thus, the simple notion that revenge is a significant moneymaker in postseason tourneys turns out to be mostly a myth.

Thank goodness that a more detailed analysis reveals some edges (as usual).

Favorites seeking revenge in conference tournaments for a regular-season loss in the most recent meeting (or in the only meeting) are 91-66-2 (58 percent) the last four years. That's something a handicapper can work with.

Underdogs seeking revenge in conference tournaments for losing the most recent meeting (or the only meeting) are 198-218-8 (47.6 percent) the last four years. That's something to be wary of.

While I'm on the topic of postseason myths, here's another one that's thrown around quite a bit: "By the time the postseason arrives, freshmen aren't really 'freshmen' anymore, they're 'sophomores.'" Actually, they are still freshmen. They're freshmen who are seeing the first postseason action of their careers. Yes, most of them have played more than two dozen collegiate games – nearly an entire season, but not an entire postseason.

It's my belief that young players getting their first taste of action in March are still not far enough along the learning curve to be as reliable as postseason veterans. It is true that freshmen improve greatly between November and the end of February. In fact, most coaches will tell you that their freshmen improve more during one season than do their sophomores, juniors, or seniors.

However, it is my experience that the players themselves will tell you that their first taste of "March Madness" – even at the conference tourney level – is a different animal from the regular season. Even though most freshmen have gone through some playoff pressure at the high school level, the tension gets turned up a notch or two in their first college postseason, especially at the top programs. And that's usually still the case even if a freshman has been a starter for his team the entire regular season.

The simple reason is that postseason play is so different from the regular season. Freshmen are facing the "one-and-done" scenario for the first time in college. Expectations rise. Prestigious NCAA tourney berths can be gained. Hundreds of thousands of dollars might be at stake. Bonuses for coaches can be at stake! If you don't think most coaches are more demanding of their players at tourney time, you're underestimating the situation.

Then, there are the actual game situations themselves. Many coaches shorten their player rotations. Young players who lose some of their regular minutes often press in order to make an impression when they do get in the games. Referees tend to allow a bit more physical play out front and a little more banging under the basket. A frosh hotshot who's used to getting to the free-throw line with regularity can get frustrated when those regular-season bumps are no longer called fouls. And at the other end of the spectrum, how often have you seen inexperienced players get in early foul trouble merely because they're overeager and unable to pace themselves? Over the course of more than 22 years of professional handicapping, I've seen the pressure manifest itself hundreds of times.

And I haven't even talked about tournament shot selection or free-throw accuracy yet. Many upperclassmen have choked during crunch time, so it's certainly no surprise to me if freshmen make an unusual number of bonehead plays in the postseason. The basketball can get pretty heavy, and the cylinder can look awfully small, when a freshman is at the free-throw line in the postseason and his team's survival is at stake.

One of my favorite basketball analysts said it best a few years ago when calling the last few minutes of a crucial late-season match. "Freshmens [sic] are still freshmens," he said after one nervous frosh air-balled an important one-plus-one free throw out of bounds. What that analyst lacked in grammatical prowess, he more than made up for in terms of useful handicapping wisdom. spades

Chuck Sippl is the senior editor of The Gold Sheet, the first word in sports handicapping for 48 years. The amazingly compact Gold Sheet features analysis of every football and basketball game, exclusive insider reports, widely followed Power Ratings, and a Special Ticker of key injuries and team chemistry. If you haven't seen The Gold Sheet and would like to peruse a complimentary copy, call The Gold Sheet at (800) 798-GOLD (4653) and be sure to mention you read about it in Card Player. You can look up The Gold Sheet on the web at