As the 70 or so DraftKings oddsmakers hustled to release the lines Sunday within 10 minutes of the announcement of each NCAA Tournament matchup, customers pounced.
One patron, in particular, capitalized on the reveal of the Midwest Regional by slapping $50,000 on Kansas to win the championship, at 14-to-1, and another $50,000 on the Jayhawks to reach the Final Four, at +250.
“If you’re one of the traders and you’re booking games, it’s kind of exciting to have that kind of volume,” says DraftKings Director of Sportsbook Operations Johnny Avello.
“The Kansas route to get to the Final Four is not too difficult. It’s kind of one of the more-favorable regions. The Jayhawks get the San Diego State-Creighton winner, Iowa is in that region, as is Wisconsin, USC and Auburn; it isn’t like the road’s that difficult to get there.”
Some believe the amount of legitimate teams that can actually win the title is only eight or nine, but Avello bumps that number to a baker’s dozen.
He rattles off Arizona (+650), Arkansas (80-1), Auburn (+1200), Baylor (+1200), Duke (+1600), Gonzaga (+300), Houston (28-1), Kansas (cut to +850), Kentucky (+800), Purdue (+2000), Tennessee (+1400), UCLA (+1800) and Villanova (+1400).
“And you know what? If one of those other teams jumps up and wins it, I won’t be totally shocked,” he says. “There are teams that can get on a run in this tournament, and when you get on a run anything can happen.
“Remember when Loyola-Chicago went on a run? Things can happen.”
Steep Climb For Minnows
Avello has an ally, too, in South Point Sportsbook Director Chris Andrews, in theorizing that an upstart or two could knock some bluebloods down to size and make some headlines in the NCAAs.
The Loyola-Chicago squad to which Avello referred made a run to the Final Four in 2018, and Virginia Commonwealth (2011) and George Mason (2006) upset some plans of larger programs, too, to reach the national semifinals.
For such minnows, however, isn’t simply reaching a Final Four akin to winning it all?
Andrews doesn’t disagree, but he mentions Butler. In 2010, the Bulldogs beat Michigan State to advance to the national title game, where Gordon Hayward’s desperate half-court shot at the buzzer just missed. Duke won, 61-59.
Butler, though, wasn’t a one-hit wonder. It returned to the final in 2011, when it lost to Connecticut after beating that VCU team in one national semifinal.
“Once you get there, and you hit those threes and other teams don’t, you’re talking about just one or two games” away from claiming the crown, says Andrews. “When you get close enough times, it can happen, eventually.”
KenPom Metrics Help Identify Title Contenders
Since metrics guru Ken Pomeroy began producing his ratings and statistics, in the 2001-02 season, all 19 champions have finished among his top 25 in defense and top 40 in offense.
Nine current squads fit that profile. And in the Midwest, only Auburn qualifies. Should the Tigers get eliminated early, the path for Kansas becomes that much smoother.
There are three in the East, including No. 1 seed Baylor, plus UCLA and Texas. The Midwest and East victors will meet in one national semifinal.
There are three such programs in the South, too, with top-seeded Arizona, Houston and Tennessee fitting the bill. In the West, top seed Gonzaga and Arkansas are in that group of nine.
Avello has watched money come in on Gonzaga all season. Over the past three weeks, Tennessee (which had been in the 50-1 range) has received an abundance of cash and its odds have been trimmed correspondingly to 14-1. FanDuel was dealing 25-1 on Tennessee as of Tuesday morning, so shop around if you like the Volunteers.
To tighten those KenPom figures further, though, 17 of the previous 19 champs have boasted of defensive and offensive ratings that were both 19th or better.
That restricts this year’s candidates to Gonzaga, Houston, UCLA and Baylor. None are in the Midwest which, again, highlights the path of the Kansas Jayhawks.
Opening Line Movements
Of the games whose needles moved the most within 24 hours of the DraftKings’ unveiling, Avello highlights Michigan-Colorado State, who play Thursday afternoon in Indianapolis.
DK opened pick’em but soon moved to Wolverines -2.5 points. He agreed that Michigan’s name recognition might have fueled that action.
“And a lot of people don’t know about Colorado State,” says Avello. “Certainly, the Rams did have a very good season. They’re just not known to the general public.”
Avello’s crew opened Gonzaga as a 26.5-point favorite against Georgia State on Thursday night in Portland, Ore. Money flowed in on the Zags, then reversed course on the Panthers to make them 23.5-point underdogs.
“I like our position,” he says. “We’re fairly balanced. Money came in one way on Gonzaga, then it went the other way. Yeah, I like our position there.”
Also in Portland on Thursday night, UCLA opened as a 15.5-point favorite against Akron, with a 129.5 total, and the money has bumped both down two points, to 13.5 and 127.5, respectively.
Friday in Milwaukee, DK opened with Wisconsin -9 against Colgate, and it got cut to 7 before settling at 7.5.
“There will be Wisconsin money,” says Avello, since the Badgers are playing in their own backyard. “But one thing about the NCAA Tournament is that a lot of customers like to bet the underdogs, because a lot of these matchups don’t normally happen within the course of a season.”
Friday afternoon in Greenville, S.C., DK opened Auburn -16.5 against Jacksonville State, and punters favoring the underdog have moved that line to 15.5.
“Auburn has won 27 games, but Jacksonville State has won 20,” says Avello. “They just feel like these teams can rise to the occasion. Things have changed in this tournament over the past 10 or so years, maybe even fewer than 10.
“We used to put up 30-point favorites, 34-point favorites. But you don’t see much of that anymore. A number-one team like Gonzaga against a weaker team, you’re seeing 23 or 24, but we’re not getting into those high 20s or low 30s any longer.”
Villanova, which has two national titles in recent years and won the Big East Conference tournament, plays Delaware on Friday in Pittsburgh and was installed by DK as a 17-point favorite. Interest in the Blue Hens has sliced that to 15.5.
Avello & Co. anticipated a methodical, deliberate affair Thursday night in Fort Worth, Texas, between San Diego State and Creighton, opening that total at 118.5. That has been pumped to 120.
They had good reason to set a low bar here because Aztecs and Blue Jays games are a combined 40-23-1 to the ‘under’ this season.
Asked about an oddity like USC coach Andy Enfield being 10-1 ATS (with the Trojans and Florida Gulf Coast) in the NCAAs, Avello dismisses such a stat from playing any role in determining a line.
“No, it really doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s in the mind. It’s just not reflected in the number.”
Two Teams To Fade
Two teams for whom we forecast trouble are Providence and Michigan State.
Thursday afternoon in Buffalo, Providence is a 2-point favorite against South Dakota State, which is the nation’s best-shooting team across the board, the only squad in the top 10 in both 3- (44.2%, which is No. 1) and 2-point touch (56.3%), and top-40 (76%) at the line. If you want to back the underdog, BetMGM was offering South Dakota State +2.5 as of this morning.
Along those same lines, Michigan State is favored by 1.5 points against Davidson on Friday night in Greenville, S.C.
The Wildcats are eighth beyond the arc (38.5%), 34th inside it (54.2%) and 49th in free throws (75.7%). The only other program with better marksmanship is South Dakota State.
Looking For Value Plays
Houston, with a 22-12 ATS mark that’s 12th in the country, has covered eight of its past 10 games. Friday against UAB in Pittsburgh, the Cougars are 8.5-point favorites.
Thirteen of Seton Hall’s past 16 games have finished ‘under’ as have seven of TCU’s past 10. The Pirates-Horned Frogs’ total Friday in San Diego at Viejas Arena, whose regular visitors are accustomed to low scores, is 129.5.
St. Peter’s, a 17.5-point underdog to Kentucky on Thursday in Indianapolis, is 20-9 ATS, No. 4 in the country. Moreover, the Peacocks have covered their past seven games.
Longwood, with a sixth-best ATS of 19-9 this season, is a 17-point dog against Tennessee on Thursday in Indy.
Iowa games are 22-12-1 to the ‘over,’ the 12th-highest rate in the land. Its total vs. Richmond in Buffalo on Thursday is 151.5. Heed a word of caution, though, as 12 of the Spiders’ previous 17 games have finished ‘under.’
Hawkeyes sophomore power forward Keegan Murray, by the way, is rolling, having averaged 24.9 points over his past seven games, shooting better beyond the arc (53.7%) than inside it (51.3%), and sinking 83.3% of his free throws.
Finally, a detailed examination of power ratings and projections revealed three first-round anomalies, teams that should be favored—in my opinion—but aren’t, all playing Thursday. Here are those squads, with opening lines and current DraftKings odds, and tip-offs:
Colorado State +2.5 (currently +2.5) vs. Michigan, Indianapolis, 12:15 p.m.
San Francisco +2 (currently +1.5) vs. Murray State, Indianapolis, 9:40 p.m.
Boise State +2.5 (currently +2.5) vs. Memphis, Portland, 1:45 p.m.