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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, March 12, 2012 at 10:25 PM

Don’t get the idea that the Big Dance doesn’t start until Thursday. Yes…the wall-to-wall basketball coverage will be going full force Thursday through the weekend. But, the NCAA Tournament starts TUESDAY NIGHT with the first of two play-in games (they’re called “first round” games by the powers-that-be…but we don’t have to pretend!). There are two more on Wednesday. Remember that one of the play-in teams last year, Virginia Commonwealth, would ultimately go all the way to the Final Four!

We hope you were with us last week for all of our conference tournament previews. We’ll be following the same general format this week. Our nutshell previews will include:

*The computer rankings as of the beginning of the week as posted by Jeff Sagarin at USA Today. Many analysts have used these over the years to get a much better sense of where teams rank than the impressions given my the mainstream media or the badly outdated RPI numbers.

*The computer rankings as of the beginning of the week as posted by college basketball guru Ken Pomeroy. These represent the state-of-the-art in terms of mainstream rankings (we like our proprietary rankings better, but we’re not publishing those or making them public!).

*The offensive and defensive efficiency rankings as tabulated by Pomeroy, which reflect points scored and allowed adjusted for tempo and caliber of opposition.

We think this data really set the stage for tournaments as they unfolded last week. We hope they assisted you do-it-yourselfers in your own handicapping process. If you had to choose between reading our previews with this information, or listening to HOURS of blabbering from talking heads in suits about which obvious teams they like to win…we think the time you spend with us in the NOTEBOOK would win hands down.

We’re going to present both the Tuesday and Wednesday games here in the Tuesday edition of the NOTEBOOK. That will give us time to talk about important general themes for the bulk of the brackets on Wednesday.

 

TUESDAY’S PLAY-IN GAMES (Dayton, OH)

WESTERN KENTUCKY VS. MISSISSIPPI VALLEY STATE

Vegas Line: Western Kentucky by 4

 

Computer Rankings/Efficiency Rankings

W. Kentucky (16): 202 in Sagarin, 189 in Pomeroy, 233 on offense, 151 on defense

Miss. Valley St. (16): 233 in Sagarin, 258 in Pomeroy, 268 on offense, 244 on defense

These are the two worst teams in the tournament this year according to the computers. So, it’s good that they have to earn their way in. But, it’s a bit unfair that they get to play each other. That means one will get to be in the main draw…even though both Vermont and Lamar from the other play-in game for 16 seeds have better rankings.

Western Kentucky closed the season in a way that’s better than those numbers would suggest. They made a coaching change that clicked at just the right time. So, you can probably think of them as at least being close to the levels you’ll see for Vermont and Lamar in a bit.

In terms of on-the-court differences, the most obvious is on defense. Neither team is very good on offense. MSVU is significantly worse on defense, which will make it very tough for them to get a lead or protect one for a lengthy period of time here. Vegas has anticipated that by making Western Kentucky the favorite. Is there any value at that line? We could pass this game, or maybe it made the cut amongst all the NIT and other tourney action tonight. You’ll have to purchase JIM HURLEY’S picks to find out! In terms of the NOTEBOOK…the numbers make it clear why Western is the favorite.

Note that the winner of this game will face Kentucky in Louisville. It’s tempting to think ahead to the potential crowd response for a Western Kentucky-Kentucky battle.

 

BYU VS. IONA

Vegas Line: BYU by 1

 

Computer Rankings/Efficiency Rankings

Iona (14): 52 in Sagarin, 57 in Pomeroy, 16 on offense, 188 on defense

BYU (14): 39 in Sagarin, 50 in Pomeroy, 101 on offense, 25 on defense

BYU really got hosed in the seedings according to the computers. Sagarin had them as a top 40 team…and Pomeroy had them in a range that should have been safe for a bid. Instead, these are the last two teams to get bids since they have to play-in for a 14th seed.

Many are talking about Iona as a potential VCU replay. Last year the media blasted the selection committee for including VCU…and the Rams went all the way to the Final Four. This year, it’s Iona that’s causing a ruckus…so many believe they Gaels will develop an “us against the world” mentality. Could be. And, the Metro-Atlantic Conference has made headlines in recent Dances. We think both of these teams are roughly 12th caliber seeds…so this should be a very good game.

You’ll note that BYU has the slight edge in rankings, which corresponds to a slight edge in Las Vegas. Our New York area sources will be providing us information about Iona. We’ll only play the game if we here something special from them. The winner faces Marquette on Thursday. We might well be looking at this survivor as a dog in that game given the Big East’s woes’ last year and their sluggish play last week.

 

WEDNESDAY’S PLAY-IN GAMES (Dayton,OH)

LAMAR VS. VERMONT

Vegas Line: Lamar by 3

 

Computer Rankings/Efficiency Rankings

Vermont (16): 147 in Sagarin, 120 in Pomeroy, 145 on offense, 107 on defense

Lamar (16): 115 in Sagarin, 102 in Pomeroy, 84 on offense, 126 on defense

Lamar is undefeated straight up since coach Pat Knight when on his tirade that supposedly threw his team under a bus. The bus missed, and the players have played with fire ever since. They were particularly strong on defense through the Southland tournament. And, that fire and strength has led to the Cardinals being three-point favorites as we go to press.

Vermont is far from a pushover. There are some years where that computer profile is more like a 15th seed depending on how many surprises earn automatic bids from their tourneys. We’re not going to suggest that the winner here will beat North Carolina later in the week. We do want to acknowledge the quality on the floor though…and give credit where it’s due to Knight. His tirade went viral. The subsequent success of his team didn’t.

Our on-site sources will be firmly established in Dayton by Wednesday’s games. So, we may have some information that could trigger a play here. To this point, the preview stats are in line with the market.

 

CALIFORNIA VS. SOUTH FLORIDA

Vegas Line: California by 2.5

 

Computer Rankings/Efficiency Rankings

S. Florida (12): 70 in Sagarin, 66 in Pomeroy, 178 on offense, 16 on defense

California (12): 31 in Sagarin, 28 in Pomeroy, 50 on offense, 21 on defense

Talk about getting hosed! California graded out as roughly a 7th or 8th seed according the computers, which adjust for strength of schedule. Why are the Bears in a play-in game as a 12th seed? They’re one of the last four teams in the Dance! South Florida thought they’d be in safely, but barely snuck in themselves (either in the last three or last four in).

We’ll be thinking about the Under here given those defensive rankings…and given the general style of play from most Big East teams in a playoff format. Ugly basketball. If Cal struggles here, will use that as a proxy for estimating Colorado’s performance against UNLV later in the week. If South Florida struggles, that’s the first time that this year will be as bad as last year in terms of depth for the Big East in this event.

Game day releases go up a few hours before the first tip. That means in the afternoon Tuesday and Wednesday, but early in the morning on Thursday through the weekend! Make sure you get set up now to earn full value from the opportunities that await. Whether you’re going day-by-day online with your credit card, or you’re locked in at the office at 1-800-323-4453…this is a week where you really need to stay on top of things.

We’ll be doing that ourselves with tournament coverage throughout the week. Be sure you’re with us every day in the NOTEBOOK so you know what’s REALLY happening in the NCAA TOURNAMENT!

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