By the end of this week, conference games will make up the schedule for every team in the country.
Handicapping conference play is different from non-conference action. There is more familiarity in all aspects — travel, scheduling, personnel, tendencies — and everything seems to tighten up more. You won’t see as many big point spreads, and things have a higher degree of predictability.
Before looking at some teams to back and teams to fade, here are a few conference-play notes to keep in mind.
Back-to-back road games: Some teams have been road warriors already, but you’re going to find some interesting road-game spots. Take the Pac-12, for example. Teams will often play Stanford and Cal on the same trip. They’ll play UCLA and USC. They’ll play Utah and Colorado, which is the most interesting trip considering the elevation.
Teams in the Big Sky or Mountain West might play back-to-back games at high altitude. Don’t take those spots for granted. Playing a second game in less than 48 hours at elevation would be tough for a team such as Sacramento State or San Jose State.
Free-throw percentage: As mentioned, games tighten up a lot. That means we’ll get some foul fests, as these games are more important than those during the non-conference schedule. If you want to bet a single-digit favorite, you better look at the team’s free-throw percentage. That is true of every game, but especially conference games.
Conference revenge: This is more of a subjective angle but still something to consider. Some games just mean more than others. Rivalries are going to mean more and, by extension, the next game might mean less. You’ll want to factor that into your handicapping.
Another revenge example is when a team was knocked out of the previous conference tournament by a certain opponent, especially if it was an upset or a fluky outcome. You can’t really assign a point value to these things, but these are college-aged human beings and revenge can be a big factor.
Teams to Fade
Western Illinois: We’ll start with the teams to fade and the Leathernecks top this list. It seems as though this trend is already in progress, as WIU has dropped three in a row, including a hideous loss to St. Thomas on New Year’s Day.
Opponents are shooting 37.7% from 3-point range against WIU, a team that has played the 333rd-ranked schedule per Bart Torvik and 321st per Ken Pomeroy (and the 349th-ranked slate of opposing defenses). The Summit League is certainly not known for defense, but it is known for offense. And the Leathernecks are a poor defensive team that fouls a lot.
The Summit League has the highest 3-point percentage as a conference at 35.6%. Western Illinois doesn’t have a good enough offense to keep up and will now face a lot of good shooting teams.
Indiana: Normally, I like to find under-the-radar teams for these sections, but the Hoosiers stand out. They’re off to a strong 10-3 start, but two of those three losses have come in Big Ten play. Indiana has played the 221st-ranked schedule per KenPom, which is about to change. Nebraska and Rutgers are the only teams outside of the top 100 that the Hoosiers will play the rest of the way.
Indiana has the top 2-point percentage defense in the country, which I wouldn’t expect to continue against a stronger schedule and quality Big Ten offenses. The Hoosiers also have a turnover percentage of 20.7% in a conference where turnover percentages are usually low. Indiana is liable to throw away some possessions against teams that can make it hurt. I’ll be looking to fade Indiana as the realities of conference play set in.
Teams to Back
Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels, who moved from the Ohio Valley to the Atlantic Sun this season, are just 8-6, with four of those wins against lower-division opponents. But the Colonels will be a much different kind of opponent for Atlantic Sun teams.
Eastern Kentucky bombs away from deep and really pushes the tempo. The Colonels have shot a 3 on 51% of their field-goal attempts in games against Division I teams. Opponents have made a lot of 2-point shots against them, but the A-Sun is not an efficient offensive conference inside the arc.
EKU recruited for and was part of a much stronger OVC. With their style of play, the Colonels have a chance to win by margin in the A-Sun.
Saint Mary’s: The Gaels, who start West Coast Conference play on Thursday, performed well in the non-conference schedule, including wins over Notre Dame, Oregon and Utah State. Randy Bennett’s team should be ready for WCC action.
Based on perception and record, I’m a tad worried that they’ll face some inflated betting lines, but the Gaels rarely allow an offensive rebound and have one of the best defensive assist rates in the country. They play relentless defense on the perimeter and force a lot of one-and-done opportunities.
The WCC has a group of teams that play a lot of different styles, but Saint Mary’s is extremely consistent and deserves the benefit of the doubt in league play until proven otherwise.