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One Damn Thing After Another - Adapting Your Handicapping To Change...By Nelson Lardner

It's now been two full decades since the NCAA introduced the three-point shot into college basketball. It was inevitable, the longrange shot being an established, popular feature of the professional game. Many purists decried it, but the excitement it added to the typical matchup was undeniable . . . so here we are.

As a handicapper, I had profound, sustained misgivings about the innovation, but as an underdog player, it didn't take me long to stop worrying - and love the bomb, despite the greater pointspread deviation the accompanying increased scoring introduced. No question, the new wrinkle favored underdogs, especially in extended endgames featuring the leaders striving to run the clock down, while the team giving chase launched missiles in their quest to whittle down the prevailing margin.

An eight-point lead with a minute left - previously thought impervious - was now surmountable, so long as the pursuers maintained hot shooting touches while the pursued played as leaders under pressure so often do . . . with an apple in their throats. And if you're sitting with the trailer +4 1/2 in circumstances as described, you have just cause to feel a good deal more hopeful than during olden (pre-trey) times.

Any new toy that facilitated comebacks and made for more frantic finishes had to be good for the plus-player, and dog fanciers have wound up pleased more often since the 3-pointer's inception. The shot has also opened new coaching vistas, most notably the inclination of squads on the fast-break to settle for an open trey if and when it's there - especially if the defensive matchups in a more conventional passing/set-up game are not favorable for the attacking team.

Like most exotic weapons, the "three" can prove a double-edged sword, especially in the revered March/April time period. "Three"-oriented outfits with tricky, fluid offenses can do serious damage when underrated going into the NCAA tournament (recent West Virginia editions are exhibit "A"). On the other hand, overachieving teams that live and die by the three can and will hit the brick wall when confronted by outfits who are just as physically talented - and play a sounder, more conventional, game in the bargain. Reference West Virginia - again. Also, simply recall the North Carolina/Illinois NCAA final of two seasons' back, for a precise picture of exactly what I mean.

So, the three-pointers become an established friend to the dog fancier, and trey-loving squads have specific advantages/disadvantages in isolated matchup situations. Now . . . what about the two-point conversion?

This is one innovation where the kids' organization took the first initiative. The NCAA introduced this strategic thrust in the late '50s, and the eight-team American Football League put it in their rulebook when they launched in 1960. Of course, after the merger, the stuffy NFL abrogated such nonsense . . . until 1994, when it would no longer look as if they were actually stealing something from Junior, and the wise old heads of the August League incorporated it into their sacred scriptures.

The conversion rate of the deuce in the NFL has long settled into the 43-45% range . . . just tough enough to discourage willy-nilly usage, but still viable when chasing from behind in order to stay within reach of a specific number of scores of a game leader. Given the negative percentage drag, with a house "take" more than twice as stiff as roulette's, it's a weapon best used with restraint. Most smart coaches won't even look at it before midway in the second half, so as to give their side a fair chance using conventional weapons, while avoiding shooting themselves in the foot with premature use.

Misfires on two-point tries have led to many a shaggy, odd-looking final NFL score . . . but the ploy has actually aided fans who like to attempt to shop around both sides of plus/minus "3" and "7", as conversion successes frequently conventionalize odd scores in the late going, facilitating more finals landing on such key numbers. You're down eleven, in the fourth quarter, and you score a touch . . . go, baby, go. You hit the jackpot, you're only behind by three. You miss, and you're down five - no love lost for trying, you still only need one score.

Now, if you took +4 1/2 in the above scenario . . . potential angina looms. But that was a risk when you bought your ticket and took the ride. But in broad terms, the two-pointer has aided those who take the greatest pains to be on the comfortable side of key numbers . . . just another reason to be a judicious shopper, and to take the time to learn the nuances of sports-market timing. It's fun-damental.

Nelson Lardner

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