Win or Go Home: Betting College Basketball Conference Tournaments

The game ball is seen during the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Sarah Stier/Getty Images/AFP.

College basketball’s regular season is over, and the power conferences will begin their respective conference tournaments this week. Many smaller conferences already have.

College coaches around the country will tell you “It’s a new season,” and “everyone is 0-0.”

That’s all very true. The postseason is a very different brand of basketball than the regular season, and, just as the shift from non-conference to conference play in early January changed the gambling landscape, so does the changeover from regular season to tournament time.

While everyone and their coworker jump into the March Madness pool for the NCAA Tournament, the conference tournaments offer a very different but potentially lucrative opportunity to cash in.

Here are some ways this week’s action differs from the Big Dance, and how you can take advantage.

All Day, Every Day

One reason the NCAA Tournament is called March Madness is there are multiple games on all day. A flood of scores and results bombard the viewer, and part of the thrill is keeping track of everything. That’s the fan’s perspective, however. For an individual team, things are very different.

NCAA games run from Thursday to Sunday on back-to-back weekends before the Final Four, but each individual NCAA site only has games on two of those four days, with a one-day break in between. Teams that win their first game have almost two full days to recover before playing again, and then they can focus on their travel plans and scouting for the next weekend.

Teams have several stretches during the season where they’ll play games with just one day off in between. Fatigue in the NCAA Tournament is rarely a major factor, and coaches often say that the longer commercial breaks during tourney games do more to prevent players from wearing out than the schedule does in tiring them.

Conference tournaments aren’t like that. For a given conference, all the teams are in one location, and they’ll play every day until they lose a game. That means rest and recovery are critical and nearly impossible.

That means that teams with a short bench, or those battling injury, will be at a disadvantage during the conference tournament. For example, in the ACC, Florida State, who has lost several starters with season-ending injuries, may not be the dark-horse pick to make a deep run. And North Carolina, who did not make a single substitution in the entire second half of their win over Duke on Saturday, allowing all five starters to play the full 20 minutes, could be in danger of hitting E on the gas tank.

I Know You

Another big difference between conference and NCAA tournament play is the opponent. Teams from all over the country come together for the NCAAs, and efforts are made by the selection committee to avoid rematches of regular-season games in the early rounds. That means teams will be playing someone they haven’t seen before.

While playing the NCAA tourney schedule, with one day off between games, may not wear down the players, it can pose a scouting challenge. There’s very little time for the coaches to break down film and learn the next opponent’s tendencies and then pass that information on to the players. Unfamiliarity can breed upsets.

In the conference tournament, teams are always playing rematches of the regular season. Often teams are playing each other for the third time. There are no secrets. That makes it tougher for upsets to occur.

For example, the old adage says “It’s tough to beat a team three times in one season.” The numbers, however, say otherwise. In the history of the ACC Tournament, teams are 35-7 against an opponent they’ve already beaten twice, for a winning percentage of .800. The top three seeds in that tournament have combined for 309 ACC Tourney wins, all-time. Seeds four through 15 have just 231. If a team was better in the regular season, they’re often better in the conference tournament.

Blow the Whistle

The players and coaches in the conference tournament know each other well, and so do the officials. Another potential source of NCAA upsets is the chance that a team will be playing in front of an officiating crew from another conference, who hasn’t seen them play up close.

That means that the quickstep as a star player starts his dribble may be called a travel for the first time this season. Or that the stiff defense that the conference refs have allowed to be played all year may suddenly produce foul trouble. It’s yet another reason that favorites are safer in this week’s games than they will be next week.

Desperate Times…

The last factor that changes the game in conference tournament play is the NCAA tournament on the horizon. The March Madness brackets will be unveiled on Sunday, hours … or in some cases, minutes … after the conference championship games are over. This is the last chance for bubble teams to get a resume-boosting win and for top teams to make their case for a better seeding.

Sometimes, that means dog fights, close games, and epic comebacks as teams battle until the end. Other times, it means a team sees the writing on the wall midway through the second half and starts heading for the bus, leading to a season-ending blowout loss. Trying to decide which will happen makes in-game betting a bigger challenge than the regular season.