Relative to the regular season, NCAA tournament games are usually not easy to handicap, and for many good reasons: the unique pressure of the lose-and-out setup, the differing strengths of the many leagues represented, a team’s lack of familiarity with its upcoming Bola88 opponent, unfamiliarity with the site of the game, the many “off” teams involved, and so on. Still, wagering on the NCAA tourney seems irresistible for most handicappers. And the amount of wagering by part-time and once-in-a-while bettors tends to go way up (much to the delight of sportsbooks, by the way).
Personally, I’m not a big fan of the first round of the NCAA tourney, because of the many intangibles and a larger “X” factor in many of the games. If you’ve read any of my columns in Card Player, you should know that the more predictable the game, the better; the less predictable, the less your chance for success (and the better for the sportsbooks). Because of the many class differences and big pointspreads, the first round is usually the trickiest of all six rounds in the tournament. Still, half (32) of all the NCAA tourney games are played in the first round, and because of all the office pools and plain “sporting excitement,” it is very popular. Here are some thoughts that might help you simplify things just a bit.
The “off” teams tend to hold their own against the spread. (“Off” teams are those whose games are not carried on the regular Las Vegas line, like Monmouth from the Northeast Conference or Holy Cross from the Patriot League.) Betting against the “off” teams overall is not a gimme. Two years ago, the “off” teams were 5-7 versus the spread, all being eliminated in the first round. Last year, “off” teams were 7-6 versus the spread (thus, a total of 12-13 the last two years), with only one making it through to the second round (Manhattan, a 5-point dog, upset Florida 75-60).
When it comes to big class differences in matchups, the key question is, “Can the underdog ‘play’?” Obviously, it can play basketball, in the broad sense of the word play. What I mean is, the players’ definition of whether a team can “play.” Can it shoot? Does it have size, athletic ability, and more than one very good player? Is it well-coached and poised, or will it panic and go hully-gully as soon as it trails by double digits? Is it gritty, determined, or well-experienced. If an “off” team or other big underdog “can’t play” and you wager on it, you’re counting on mercy from the superior team, lethargy/indifference on the part of the favorite, or serendipity. Betting and then trusting in serendipity will destroy your bankroll pretty fast.
Look for low-variance favorites. This is one way to single out a few underdog prospects in the first round. Skipping the technical mathematical explanation and getting straight to sports terminology, a “low-variance” team is one that neither scores a lot of points nor tends to give up a lot of points. While such a team might be a tough-minded quintet and win lots of games, it might not win very many by a lot of points, or lose many by a lot of points. A veteran, poised, well-coached “off” team that’s facing a low-variance favorite might have a better chance to cover the pointspread, even if the spread is smaller than it is for a team facing North Carolina, Wake Forest, or Oklahoma State this year.
Look for underdogs that can defend. There is nothing more frustrating for a big-name team in the first round of the NCAA tourney than facing a foe with a nasty, annoying, consistent defense. If any team can nullify its opponent’s top two weapons, it has a chance to spring an upset.
Favorites on the second day of the tournament. Round one of the tournament is played over two days — 16 games on Thursday, March 17 and 16 more on Friday, March 18. In some of the recent tourneys, if there are several eye-opening upsets on the first day of round one, there tend to be far fewer upsets on the second day of round one. The danger of surprise for the big-name favorites is greater on the first day. Once an Arizona, Syracuse, or other big-name team gets knocked off on the first day, you can be sure the coaches of the favorites of the Friday games will be getting their players’ full attention. The more straight-up wins there are by the underdogs on the first day, the more I begin to like the solid, capable favorites on the second day, especially if they have a good defensive ethic. Unless you want to lock up a certain pointspread for a game on day two of the tourney, it might be worth your while to hold back a little until you see how day one unfolds.
When it comes to games involving teams seeded 5, 6, 7, and 8, a solid fundamental handicap is usually the best approach. These games generally involve few “off” teams, smaller class differences, and smaller pointspreads. Often, a third- or fourth-place team from a high-profile league is matched against a champ or runner-up from a “mid-major” conference. This is when position-by-position matchups, shooting percentages, three-point ability, free-throw accuracy, defensive prowess, court intelligence, and poise under pressure tend to mean the most. The more flaws the favorite has, the better chance the dog has. One advantage that many mid-major teams tend to have is that many of their players have been in the same system longer. Mid-majors don’t have a lot of hotshot, McDonald’s All-American recruits who stay in college for only one or two years (if they even end up choosing college over the NBA). Thus, many mid-majors (such as Gonzaga or Pacific) have the luxury of red-shirting and developing their players longer than many top-10 programs. Longer stays in any system help a team’s players know their roles better, know each other better, and know how to handle game situations better.