MORE COLLEGE SPOTLIGHTS: ATLANTIC 10, CUSA, MO-VALLEY

HANDICAPPING NOTEBOOK

MORE COLLEGE SPOTLIGHTS: ATLANTIC 10, CUSA, MO-VALLEY

Last week we showcased the six "BCS" conferences as we began our transition from mostly football coverage to mostly basketball coverage. We still have a few days of football left (Conference Championship previews will run this Saturday, game summaries this Monday...then we'll cover the Super Bowl from head to toe two weeks after that). This week, we want to get you updated on as many "mid-major" conferences as we can.

There's normally room for about three per day here in the NOTEBOOK. We've decided to start with the Atlantic 10 (because Temple is in the national rankings...and because they face Xavier TONIGHT in one of the biggest A10 games this season), Conference USA (because they have a busy schedule tonight), and the Missouri Valley (because Northern Iowa is in the national rankings).

We'll pick up three more in tomorrow's edition, focusing on leagues who generally fill the Thursday Night schedules. Between college and pro hoops, we have plenty to keep us busy on a daily basis here on these pages. We'll do our very best to touch on every board team at least once or twice, while maintaining a focus on the marquee teams and leagues.

We start today with the Atlantic 10. You regulars know we like to isolate "two-point defense" as the single most important indicator stat. Defense wins championships. It's amazing how much of a correlation there is between this stat and big time success in this sport...particularly when you get to the postseason. The "surprises" the media likes to marvel about are generally overrated teams with soft defenses losing to underrated teams with good defenses. If YOU know who's playing defense and who isn't, you can make a lot of money!

JIM HURLEY DOES, WHICH IS WHY HE MAKES A LOT OF MONEY!

Here are the Atlantic 10 numbers heading into tonight's very busy schedule. We've put conference records in parenthesis so you can get a bit more context for how everyone stacks up. There's a good general rule in the big conferences that the standings match the defenses. In the mid-majors, there's a bit more inconsistency because the caliber of play isn't as high.

ATLANTIC 10: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Mon)
Saint Louis: 42% (2-1)
Temple: 43% (3-0)
Richmond: 43% (3-1)
Dayton: 44% (2-1)
George Washington: 44% (1-2)
Duquesne: 44% (0-3)
Xavier: 45% (4-0)
Charlotte: 45% (2-1)
Massachusetts: 46% (1-3)
St. Bonaventure: 47% (1-2)
Rhode Island: 48% (2-1)
LaSalle: 48% (2-2)
St. Joe's: 48% (1-3)
Fordham: 48% (0-4)

Temple is currently ranked #16 in the country, and will face a tough challenge tonight when 4-0 Xavier comes to visit. Temple will have a slight defensive edge based on these numbers (43% to 45%). Xavier really needs to pick up the pace on that side of the ball if they want to make a serious run for the title. There are too many quality teams on the ladder above them.

Rick Majerus coaches defense, so it's no surprise his Billikens are at the top of the totem pole. Temple is legitimate...and Richmond and Dayton are getting respect in many computer ratings. We've been very hard on the Atlantic 10 in recent seasons. This may be a year where we'll be tooting their horn. We're certainly in a transition period in college hoops. Many of the traditionally strong conferences just aren't that strong any more. Some mid-majors are ready to step into that wake. The bottom teams will always be pretty lousy. The top half are teams you should be paying attention to.

Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Charlotte at Richmond
St. Bonaventure at Massachusetts
George Washington at Dayton
Duquesne at Rhode Island
Xavier at Temple
Fordham at Saint Louis

Keep an eye on Xavier/Temple. We'll learn a lot about both teams this evening.

Moving on to Conference USA...

CONFERENCE USA: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Mon)
Tulsa: 40% (4-0)
Memphis: 42% (3-0)
UTEP: 44% (2-1)
Marshall: 45% (4-0)
UAB: 45% (3-0)
Central Florida: 48% (1-2)
East Carolina: 48% (0-4)
Southern Miss: 49% (0-3)
SMU: 49% (0-3)
Tulane: 50% (1-3)
Rice: 50% (0-4)
Houston: 53% (3-1)

Tulsa does a great job of shutting off the lane, but a horrible job of forcing turnovers. So, the jury is out on how far they'll go this year. They are getting respect in various computer ratings. A dismal Christmas tournament showcased some of the issues they'll face if they do represent CUSA in the postseason in the NIT or Big Dance. They are 4-0 so far though, and are hoping to give Memphis a run for its money.

For their part, the Tigers are hanging tough in the first year without John Calipari. They're still playing defense. They're still battling as hard as they can. They would still have to be the most logical pick to win the conference this season. There are teams below them who are still undefeated in the league. It's hard to navigate a full-year slate with two-point defense sitting in the mid 40's.

Note how many BAD defenses there are in this league. There's a clear cut-off where 45% and up represents winning teams, and 48% and below represents losers in league play (except for wild and crazy Houston, who's playing a bizarre style of basketball this year). If things are already this split (the opposite of parity!), the final standings will look really weird. Handicappers will be well served to study how each team performs vs. the top clearcut groups, and based their CUSA selections on that group analysis.

Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Southern Miss at UAB
Central Florida at Houston
UTEP at Memphis
SMU at Rice
Marshall at West Virginia (non-conference)

Nice test for Marshall as they play their state rival from the Big East. UTEP/Memphis could get interesting as well. Derrik Caracter has resurfaced from problem-plagued experiences in other places. Let's hope he has some! UTEP becomes a force in CUSA if he even gets in the neighborhood of his true potential.

Wrapping up today's report with the Missouri Valley Conference. There was actually a big game last night played after publication deadlines (Northern Iowa at Wichita State). Tuesday's NOTEBOOK entry was devoted to the NBA, so we couldn't talk about the Missouri Valley then. Be sure to factor that result into the mix as you look through our report.

MISSOURI VALLEY: 2-POINT DEFENSE (league record thru Mon)
Northern Iowa: 43% (7-0)
Wichita State: 44% (5-2)
Indiana State: 44% (3-4)
Creighton: 45% (4-3)
Missouri State: 45% (3-4)
Illinois State: 47% (4-3)
Evansville: 47% (0-7)
Bradley: 50% (3-4)
Southern Illinois: 50% (3-4)
Drake: 53% (3-4)

Northern Iowa entered the week at #20 in the rankings. This is a team that returns most everything that matters from last year's Dance-team. You'll recall they lost to Purdue in the first round. This year's group is hoping to go farther. They have the best 2-point defense in the league so far, and remained unscathed heading to Wichita seven games into league play.

Note that the Missouri Valley is way ahead of most others in terms of games within the conference. Separations in the standings mean more. Though, there aren't many separations here! Northern and Wichita are the only two teams better than 4-3 in the standings above, while Evansville is the only team below 3-4 (a woeful 0-7). This is a VERY even conference in the middle. We expect the teams with the softest defenses to start falling off the pace. Handicappers must develop smart expectations, then bet them in Vegas!

Tonight's schedule (in rotation order):
Creighton at Illinois State
Bradley at Southern Illinois
Drake at Evansville

Wednesday's schedules are HUGE in college hoops. It's basically a Saturday on a weeknight. We can't tell you for sure whether or not we'll have a major release tonight in the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, or the Missouri Valley Conference. We can assure you SOMETHING SPECIAL is brewing on this MONSTER card!

Call 1-800-323-4453 for details. Be sure to ask about our BLUE RIBBON (Won 6 of last 7!) and CASHLINE (On a 27-14 run) packages when you call. Sign up for any longterm basketball package, and we'll include the last three games of the NFL playoffs at no additional charge. Note that game day releases and packages can also be purchased here at the website with your credit card. BIG JUICY WINNERS ARE ALWAYS JUST A FEW CLICKS AWAY!

We'll be back tomorrow to focus on conferences set for Thursday Night action. Back to the NBA for a pro update on Friday. Saturday will feature our NFL previews for the Minnesota/New Orleans and NY Jets/Indianapolis games. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY going on in the world of sports!

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