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Quit Foolin' Around - Observations On Minimizing...By Nelson Lardner

This is a relatively-fallow time on the sports speculation calendar, other than for baseball addicts (Hooray! They're back! Grab those big dogs!) and seasoned horseplayers (Ah, grass racing is back in business, in northern climes!). But there are lessons to be absorbed. Whether they're to be filed away or applied immediately, they're worthwhile.

A LESSON OF SEASON PAST (NFL FOOTBALL): The overriding principle of the consortium which reigns over pro football is simple: Parity Uber Alles. The ability of a team on the come with developing chemistry - such as the Giants - to overcome a sluggish seasonal start and a playoff seed dictating one not-insurmountable road challenge after another is one paramount component of the ideal mosaic. It's simply amazing how Jeremy Shockey's injury-enforced absence brightened Eli Manning's mental outlook to the extent it did, eh, what?

The other is to virtually assure that there are no great teams - and if there are, to assure that any so-called "great team" will find themselves hard-pressed to prove it, week after week, throughout a 19-game marathon. The 2007 Patriots were a great team, no question, but one that was wound up tight, early, by Bill Belichick, peaked prior to Halloween, and was vulnerable to a clever blitzing package installed by a defensive coordinator (the Giants' Steve Spagnuolo) who'd provoked similar grief within the Pats' camp when part of the Eagles' defensive brain trust prior to Super Bowl XXXIX, though the Giants managed to extract a more satisfying straight-up result. A less-than-perfect team can defeat a superior roster at the end of a long season, if circumstances are right.

A LESSON OF SEASON PRESENT (NCAA BASKETBALL): It's amazing what one extra day of dedicated committee work apparently meant to the NCAA's Men's Basketball Tournament seeding committee. Sure, such facilitations as allowing North Carolina to play its opening four games in Raleigh and Charlotte is patent nonsense. Permitting UCLA to warm up in Anaheim and Phoenix is no less offensive. At least the Bruins, Memphis and Kansas have at least absorbed one good scare apiece.

But above and beyond the four #1s making it to the final weekend for the first time, ever . . .this tournament has featured fewer disconcerting results than any I can recall, and it's because of the triphammer formfulness of the results. Winning favorites have covered close to 85% of the time, and barring Davidson's dream run (and remember, they were justifiably FAVORED over Gonzaga), the shock results were few and far between. Yep, a #15 (Belmont) almost beat a #2 (Duke), and San Diego OT'd UConn, but the first round was largely a chalkwalk otherwise (excepting the likes of Clemson and USC).

Given the season-long strength of taking the points in college buckets, and given the evidence of serious, sustained tout struggling in this tournament, this run of favorite-favoring results has been manna from heaven from most layers. The Joe Sixpacks are winning, and everyone knows that if the Joe Sixpacks keep speculating on sports results twelve months a year, they'll give any winnings back.

Overall, the predictive value of opening CBB pointspreads in terms of identifying straight-up game winners has never been stronger. Clever beat-the-book college hoop spread 'capping is more about identifying special situations and "exceptions" to prevailing current form than ever before.

A LESSON OF SEASON FUTURE (MLB): Until last season, when I was less discriminating than I should have been, the theory of isolating prime "over" possibilities in early-season major-league play had been effective for most seasons of this millenium.

Begin with the supposition that it's an "over" world, since the Lords of Baseball clearly prefer it that way, given how the game's been run since 1920.

Add to that the perfectly-logical line of thought that "ace" pitchers representing logical championship contenders are OF COURSE not going to be wound up tight, quite this early. It's good to be good, now, but it's better to be better in September - and, hopefully, October. Ergo, the biggest names are likely going to be operating at some 85% efficiency, which leaves "over" opportunities when you're talking "ace"-sized over/under quotations. Your quest to consistently cash tickets will be smoother if you take care not to cast your fate into a straight-in-from-center wind, or gamble on consistent run production when temperatures hover in the mid-to-low thirties. But until it gets to be right around Tax Day, we'll look "over" first, when the biggest names are situated on the mound. This posture tends to put you on the side opposite of the masses, which is seldom a bad thing, when logic lay solidly on your side.

Nelson Lardner

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