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Now the Fun Begins
If Somebody Asked Me I’d Say...
by Mort Olshan

Almost like a fighter prepping for a world championship bout, the sparring, training, conditioning, experimenting, and whatever else is set aside—the real basketball action starts. It’s time to play for keeps because, with a victory, you advance, lose and you go home. There’s no tomorrow; the season’s over! That’s the cruel test for the colleges. The series played by the pros allow a margin of error. Basketball is really two seasons. One is regularly scheduled. The other—the do-or-die playoffs—is so compelling even non-basketball fans get excited.

Let’s examine the college scenario. Sixty-five teams will contend for the NCAA national championship. There now are postseason playoffs in every conference except the Ivies. The Pacific Ten is finally aboard. The regular season is nearly irrelevant except for determining the tourney seedings and brackets, with the door open for Cinderella teams to get invited to the dance. The college cage season, with its Final Four, reaches a climax unequaled by any sports event in America. And that includes the Super Bowl and World Series. You can’t beat the sustained excitement over a three-week period involving sixty-four games played all over the country. And for the serious handicapper, there’s a unique challenge in facing the linemaker in a game-by-game shootout.

Here are some angles to ponder as you approach the upcoming college championship:

• Stay with teams you’re familiar with. By concentrating in your own area or region of expertise, you’re most likely going to find the edges.
• Zero in on the tough, hard-nosed defensive teams. They tend to be more consistent than offensive-minded squads. Shooting percentages are more erratic, especially in tense tournament games which are often played at a different pace. A smart, disciplined and aggressive defense will force turnovers, many at critical times.
• Watch for late-season momentum. A team might have been sacrificing some early victories in order to develop experience and better techniques later on for the tournament.
• Check the point guards. There’s a lot of pressure in a sudden-death format. The steady hand of an experienced floor leader is invaluable, analogous to a quarterback in football and pitcher in baseball. He’s essential in helping to control pressure situations.
• As in every sport, perhaps the fundamental difference between two evenly matched teams is the coach, someone who has been there and done that, and in past tournaments was a major resource.
• Another key factor is having a star scorer who can create his own shots and points—a franchise-type, so to speak. When the going gets tough, he’s the guy who often makes the difference.
• The quality and depth of a squad’s bench strength is a definite asset, especially as teams are asked to play two games over a three-day span—that can be draining.
• Team experience is almost always an added bonus. The team possessing it is less likely to choke. Poise and confidence are virtues that can’t be underestimated.
• Don’t overlook favorable travel and playing sites. The NCAA has changed its bracketing procedures for this year’s tournament. The changes are designed to give the top four seeded teams in each region—16 teams overall—an opportunity to play closer to home during the first two rounds. The idea being to reduce travel regardless of where teams would play in regionals the next week if they were to advance. Bottom line: the top-seeded teams catch a break with this new format. Furthermore, there were some disappointing crowds for good match-ups last year due to travel distance.

Analyzing the NBA playoffs is similar to the colleges but different, too, in several ways. Of the twenty-nine teams that started the season, sixteen will qualify for a chance to win the ultimate prize. The NBA stages 1,189 games in the regular season, all this to eliminate just thirteen teams. Actually, the season is merely a prelude to the real thing.

The league would have you believe the motivation for those 1,189 games is not only to make the playoffs, but also to fight for home-court advantage. But even before the long, arduous season begins you can almost always predict a dozen of the sixteen teams that will be there at the end. The other four slots vary from season to season. The most important job an NBA coach faces is to pace his team so that it sustains a healthy level of motivation and consistency and, to be prepared for the playoffs.

Here are some points an NBA handicapper should focus on:

• There’s an ancient theory that generally holds up, called the Zig-Zag. Quite simply, you wait for the result of the opening game then back the team that lost, the idea being that the team that is one-up has a slight cushion that takes away the urgency to win back-to-back. Meanwhile, the loser of the first game is somewhat desperate to avoid facing an early 0-2 deficit.

The exception to this prescription is when a team is clearly dominant, like the Lakers last season. In that case, there’s likely to be more sweeping than zig-zagging. Los Angeles’ sensational 15-1 straight-up record translated into an equally remarkable 12-3-1 against the spread.

• Check the regular season series rivalry of the competing teams. Their history is not nearly as identifiable now that teams play each other fewer times each year, rather than six meetings in years past. However, with extenuating circumstances aside, i.e., injuries, personnel adjustments, etc., the team that dominates the regular season is worth a look in the postseason. This hegemony could portend certain personnel match-ups that might be decisive. Compare speed, size, athleticism, chemistry and spirit. Psychology plays a lesser role because it’s a given every team is striving to win.
• Late-season momentum is often more important than the overall season record. Many coaches, already assured of being playoff bound, will spend a good part of the season trying to develop team chemistry and to finding the right combination. Study hard and you might uncover teams that are either underrated or overrated based on misleading perceptions.
• For the over-under player, veteran handicappers feel it’s the under that’s generally more favorable. Playoff games tend to be fiercely fought and more physical, thus denying the more potent offensive team its desired rhythm and style.

The oddsmakers also know most bettors don’t like to play the unders. They prefer rooting for both sides, and thus find the under too restrictive. Over a six-year period, 1996-2001, Utah, under the astute coaching of Jerry Sloan, has compiled a commanding under record of 55-25-4. The Jazz are also a formidable home favorite, 25-9. Overall, the unders boast a 54 percent advantage, although last year the oddsmakers adjusted to give overs a 74-66 edge.

As in all sports, when in doubt, it’s generally smart to take the points. Most veteran handicappers favor taking the points, given the scoreboard is dead even at the beginning. Also, you must remember the favored team is often content with a victory of any dimension. There’s no need to win big. The linemaker takes advantage of the average player who most always can find twice as many reasons to go with the chalk rather than the underdog. And for this propensity, he’s going to pay a price by laying inflated numbers.

In any event, this time of the year sizzles with action. And likely it will take your mind off some of the more depressing problems that confront us.

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