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It's Not Merely The Sharper Lines Which Have Made College Baskets A Challenge...By Nelson Lardner

Coping with college basketball on a nightly basis is an enormous challenge.

With more than 300 teams to follow, the time demands are extraordinary. In that regard, it makes college football look simple . . . the NFL, downright trivial.

Those overseeing the game also made rational pointspread handicapping more difficult when they introduced the 3-point shot to the college game more than twenty years ago. While it allowed some athletically-inferior teams with a couple of great shooters to hang in games (an advantage, for an underdog built to follow that blueprint), it also markedly randomized most endgames and the resulting final-score margins.

We've beaten this horse, previously. But what we're now seeking to examine is a frustrating byproduct of the state of the modern game, which has been rearing its ugly head throughout this season -- to an extent I frankly can't recall observing in any previous campaign.

Of course, we refer to the unnerving frequency of underdogs which have failed to stay within their established handicaps after finding themselves dead-even with their favored opponents at the end of "regulation".

Just the latest in a sustained string of enervating violations: Sunday night's Clemson/Carolina classic at Chapel Hill. 82-all after regulation, both the Tigers and the 'Heels scored eight points in the first extra frame . . . but then the roof caved in on the visitor, culminating when Clem, down nine (at +9!), had the ball with some sixteen seconds left, missed a shot . . . then fouled Tyler Hansbrough for no/any discernable reason/purpose, with nine seconds left. Carolina wins by ten, and you drive home safely now, 'heah?

Hours prior to the ACC matchup, the A-10 brought together UMass and Temple at the Owls' Liacouras Center in Philly. Temple was the focus of emphatic play, and was a solid favorite in the -4 range - but a more-athletic Minutemen contingent sent it into overtime at 64. But the visitor couldn't carry on, and Temple won and covered after prevailing in the extra session, 16-6.

This past Thursday's card showcased another such atrocity. The midevening ESPNer - Indiana at Illinois - saw the Hoosiers go off at - 2 1/2 or more, at least a point above the opening price. Up by double digits much of the second half, the Illini lost Chester Frazier to an injury, saw Brian Randle disqualified with five fouls, and endured Shaun Pruitt's 1-for-7 from the charity stripe (far worse then usual, even for the renowned bricklayer). With that assistance, Indiana made it to OT, and prevailed 14-10 in the second extra session to . . . win and cover. 'Dog players who found the best line suffered added indignity in the closing moments of the first OT, as a last-second foul on Illinois was somehow overlooked; had it been called, and Indiana had made at least one free throw, Illini backers would have escaped alive. Sharp 'dog fanciers may feel put-upon by this sequence of events . . . and they'd be justified, especially when you have a 9+ dog that's dead-even after regulation - AND the first OT. That's rough.

But one must keep in mind that the psychological burden on pronounced dogs which force OT is considerable. A team that's played forty minutes against a purportedly-superior opponent, and now has to start over, from scratch? After generating a full-bore effort designed to provide the best possible opportunity to win the game? Sooner or later, there's no more gas in the tank for a team with finite resources, capable of only so much.

Not to mention that each of our examples were bucking some nasty program histories. UMass is only 1-10 straight-up at the Liacouras Center, and we're talking two teams whose recent-history gap isn't gaping. Illinois hasn't beaten a Top Fifty team all year, in ten tries, and without anyone on the roster with the kind of last-shot confidence that's required, is a heavy favorite to miss the Dance for the first time this millenium. And Clemson, at Carolina? Fifty three consecutive losses, and counting.

This has been a horrible year for seekers of the successful live dog, seeing one ATS win after another washed away due to sustained, lame overtime performances. As previously hinted, believe much of this is due to exhaustion of energy stores, a situation exacerbated by what will wind up as a FIVE-MONTH college basketball season - the most extended, ever.

Handicappers of my acquaintance who've enjoyed one successful year after another by successfully hunting these down are banging their heads in frustration. One friend has gone 1-10 ATS in the most recent eleven such situations in which he's been involved.

Some of this is related to such eternal verities as "Live by the sword, die by, etc." But suspect it may also relate to the dangers of taking relatively short points with teams in deeply-disturbing historical situations. I know . . . given Clemson's abundant physical talent, +9 looked reasonable - but it WAS against Carolina, and against the 'Heels, +9 doesn't go quite as far as it might in an Ivy League game.

You can't let yourself be thrown by obnoxious near-term results, and you shouldn't be, so long as you're managing your affairs prudently. It's the curse of being a sharp player that you're going to lose more bad beats than you'll benefit from final-second gifts. But for all that, if it seems to all be collapsing around you, it might serve you well to be just a tad more selective, minimizing exposure until conditions return to something resembling normal.


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