Not all NCAA basketball conferences are equal

Mar 5, 2013 3:00 AM

Think quick: What are the main differences between handicapping college sports and professional sports?

You are making a mistake if you get too far down the list without naming the oversized influence of conference play. In college sports, most of the games that genuinely matter before the postseason are played in conference. And what the handicapper must always keep in mind: all conferences are not created equal.

I grew up during the 80’s in a small coal-mining town near Steubenville, Ohio (boyhood home of Jimmy the Greek!). Me and about half the kids lived in town and about half rode the bus in from the hills surrounding town. Tecmo Bowl on Nintendo was a passion, and I would be lying if I denied being one of the best in town.

One summer, a kid from the hills challenged me to a money game. He gave up before halftime – tossing his controller aside saying “I’ve got to get off the hill more.”

Some conferences are clearly inferior to the big boys. Not many believe an undefeated MAC football team is truly a national title contender. But the task for a point spread handicapper is to determine exactly how big of a difference there is – while also determining how to rank conferences whose differences are not so gigantically obvious.

What makes this handicapping so difficult is major college teams’ unwillingness to play meaningful games out of conference. The kid from that Tecmo money game was the best player on the hill, and he had no way of knowing just how low down the list he would have been in town.

The quality of a football or basketball team is a relative comparison to other teams. When the teams play each other, over time the relative quality of the teams emerge. If they never play each other, there’s no objective way to tell. Consider the debate between teams from different eras.

Objectively we know the Steelers were the relatively best team from the 70s, and the Patriots have been the relatively best team since 2000. How would those Steelers teams do against the present-day Pats? We can only guess.

Computer ratings attempt to extrapolate how good conferences are from the games that actually are played between conferences. The lack of data (due to the lack of games) makes this analysis imperfect, though it must be considered when ranking conferences.

Every bettor knows the SEC is the dominant football conference. I asked three respected bookmakers – Jay Kornegay, John Avello and Chris Andrews – to project a spread if other top SEC teams had played Notre Dame the week after the BCS Title game (spread listed is from the SEC team’s perspective).

  Kornegay Avello Andrews
LSU -9½ -2½ -4
Georgia -9½ -4 -7
Florida -7½ +1½ -3

Vegas says at least four SEC teams (don’t forget Bama) would be favored over a team that was #1 in the polls entering the BCS Title game the week before.

Clearly conferences matter a great deal. The challenge for a winning handicapper is to determine just how much without the benefit of the competitive out-of-conference games we would all like to see.

RJ Bell is the founder of - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Sunday through Friday night at 11 pm on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. Discussion of this article continues at Contact RJ directly at [email protected]

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