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NCAA Conference Hoop Tournaments: Easy, Now......By Nelson Lardner

Yes, it WAS my personal intention to complete and submit this piece DURING the first day of the major-conference basketball tournaments.

I have good reasons for this. Legitimate, merciful reasons.

But the primary one, in these days of burgeoning NCAA greed, is that given the tournament structure of today's swollen conferences, the dregs are trotted out on opening day, to lay down their bodies in their quest to qualify as intended cannon-fodder for the Big Boys who have been "byed" into Thursday action.

I know, the week's temptations are overwhelming. Noon-to-midnight action . . . endless variety, etc., etc. Casual fans tend to get slaughtered when looking to act on their handicaps/reads of these games . The specific effects of the (mostly) neutral sites play a role in this. The survive-or-bust mentality of outmanned underdogs wreaks havoc with the dynamic governing exactly where a final score/margin of a specific game is likely to settle. And the very real spectre of isolated teams certain to be invited to the Big Dance being induced to suddenly tank in quest of an extra day or two of rest/freshening is very real, no matter how much the Oz-like figures at the NCAA would perfer us rubes NOT to look behind the curtain.

Folks find themselves getting involved in entire sectors they would be well-advised to avoid. Aside from (possibly!) Miami-Ohio, the MAC is trotting out its entire inventory of dregs on Wednesday. If you're eager to get involved with the likes of Northern Illinois or Toledo in a one-and-done setting with real Yankee dollars, be my guest. But I continue to maintain too much mature respect for money.

The picture gets rosier on Thursday, when those entities managing to make their way past Wednesday find themselves having earned the "opportunity" to face fresher, stronger competition while on minimal rest. Surely, these factors tend to get accurately-factored into opening spreads, but seasoned observers can frequently discern the difference between a team satisfied with a single tourney win and a feisty, improving underdog which may be capable of giving a superior roster all they can handle. Maturity, solid guard play, legitimate hunger, and specific player matchups often turn out to be key in sorting out such situations.

Some of these situations can be resolved by merely perusing game schedules. It's rare, at this point in time, but there are occasions in which a team may be forced to play in the evening, then wheel back as quickly as the following afternoon. This is social engineering which frequently generates Darwinian results, since it's virtually impossible for the underdog to respond physically, unless the favorite comes in wholly disinterested.

It's important to follow certain significant moves in the marketplace. It's advisable to jot down consensus opening numbers, and note any 1-point moves away from any number of +/-6 or below, and 1 1/2-point moves off openers above those levels. This is most useful, when in conjunction with this information you have access to/understanding of the influence of certain wiseguys/consortiums who swing vast amounts of wagering capital . . . as well as the few public handicappers who can make lines shimmy, even in these high-volume markets.

You can't chase such moves. It's obvious, on the surface: a legitimate -3 opener is out of reach at -4 . . . a -2 open, wholly unreasonable at -3. This can be frustrating on tournament short-cards, but we're talking self-preservation. Yes, playing the wagering version of the The Charge of the Light Brigade can be exciting, but prudent cowards last longer, and a significant number may even prosper.

During the regular season, the serious, educated money tends to be right more often than it's wrong in college baskets, but during tournament time, you simply can't rely on significant moves to steer you in the winning direction. If anything, once you can filter out moves by known sharp operators and touts who have built legitimate multi-year tournament reputations, you can fade many surges with confidence, especially if you believe that they're either (a) phony feints designed to drive a number to another, artificial level, setting up a lucrative over-the-top move, and/or (b) moves based almost wholly on public sentiment driving lines of "popular" teams who simply aren't deserving of the support, given the specific situation at hand.

The one line move you might find it beneficial to chase, while living to tell your children about it (even if you weren't able to anticipate it) is the reduction of a significant plus number on a legitimate underdog matched up against a superficially-imposing public team. Properly identified, this calibre of play has an enviable long-term history, even if graded against closing lines. The art is in the certification/finalization of such plays, but experienced, careful evaluation of seasonal logs (to ascertain legitimate quality), team maturity and matchup edges can work wonders, in the right hands.

Is all this easy? Hell, no. If it were, more guys would get rich doing it, and subsequent lines would be even sharper than they are now. But they aren't, and they're not. We look to provide MajorWager readers food for thought. Enjoy the week.


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