Coaches in all sports often say that they want their troops battle-tested when the games are close. Because athletic confidence is something you can’t teach, it has to be developed. The only way to develop it is for the players to learn it under game conditions.
In football, when Michael Vick and Virginia Tech met Chris Weinke and Florida State at the end of the 1999 college football season, the Seminoles had played in a string of big games with national title implications, against Florida, Notre Dame and Nebraska. FSU had played Tennessee the year before in the national championship game, while Virginia Tech had little experience in big games on the national stage. Florida State’s experience helped get the win (and cover) in the 46-29 comeback victory.
In college basketball, games in November and December are against non-conference teams, and in January conference action starts. You can gauge pretenders and contenders by looking closely at the opponents faced heading into conference play.
Georgetown started 9-1 last year against mostly weak competition. The only defeat was against Georgia, and it stood out like a sore thumb: Georgetown was a 7-point favorite, but the Bulldogs rolled 73-59. The Hoyas might have been a bit overrated, but they most certainly hadn’t been tested following blowout victories over Towson, Morgan State, Grambling, Bethune-Cookman and Coastal Carolina.
After that 9-1 start, the Hoyas then went 0-3-1 against the spread with four straight losses to Virginia, UCLA, Miami and Rutgers. The latter two were the first Big East games of the season, and Georgetown was clearly not seasoned enough to face the bigger schools.
Illinois is off to a strong 10-1 start with wins over Lehigh, Western Illinois, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Eastern Illinois, Coppin State, and Oakland. The toughest competition was against Memphis (a 77-74 loss as a favorite) and a 62-58 win over Arkansas as a 7-point favorite. That’s still 0-2 ATS against the best competition.
LSU jumped out to a 9-1 start, playing mostly home games. The Tigers had a one huge victory over Arizona 66-65 as +4 dog, but also lost 79-77 to Texas A&M as an 8-point favorite. LSU also played Nicholls State, Delaware State, Prairie View, Texas A&M Community College and McNeese State - not exactly a who’s who list of potential postseason teams.
When LSU played its first SEC game, it was a disaster - an 89-63 road loss to Georgia as +6 dog.
On the other hand, some teams play tough schedules early in the season, which helps when conference play begins.
Ohio State had early games last season against Pitt, NC State, at Louisville, as well as clashes against two teams that ended up playing in March tournaments, NC Greensboro and Winthrop. When Big 10 play tipped off, the Buckeyes roared through the schedule, starting 10-4 SU and 10-3-1 ATS.
Oklahoma had November and December games at Michigan State and at Arkansas last season and came home to play eventual champion Maryland. The Sooners routed the Terrapins 72-56, after which Big 12 play commenced. The battle-tested Sooners proceeded to go 5-1 both SU and ATS when the conference schedule kicked in.
Maryland played a string of strong non-conference competition last season, with games against Arizona, Temple, Illinois, UConn, Detroit and at Oklahoma. The Terps were ready for ACC play and proceeded to go 12-4 ATS when conference play began.
Gonzaga has a lot of depth and talent this season, but got off to an 8-5 start. Well, don’t accuse Gonzaga of playing cupcakes. The Bulldogs have already battled Utah, Indiana, Kentucky, Georgia, NC State and Stanford. Gonzaga covered against last year’s Final Four participant in a 76-75 loss to Indiana and beat NC State 69-60 as a +3 dog.
So closely examine a team’s won/loss record and its non-conference schedule. A weak schedule can be misleading, and you can identify how strong (or not-so-strong) a team might be even before conference play begins.