March hoops: Be cautious of no-names

Mar 12, 2007 11:23 PM

It’s that time of year again: Basketball games night and day, day and night. After a few hours sleep, we wake up the next day and go through it all over again.

NCAA tournament play is one of the most enjoyable times of the year for sports fans and bettors, with a seemingly endless stream of action and excitement. Big name schools often end up playing for the title. Last year it was Florida and UCLA. In 2005, Illinois, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan State met in the Final Four. Recent years we’ve seen Kansas, Texas, Syracuse, Indiana, Oklahoma, Duke, Arizona, and Maryland.

Large, high profile schools have big athletic budgets and enough scholarships to attract some of the top basketball talent, which is a key to their success. However, this doesn’t mean smaller, lesser-known schools can’t compete with the big boys — especially when you look at one 40-minute game.

Look no further than the big story a year ago, George Mason. The Patriots made it to the Final Four by knocking off Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn. They were 5, 6 and 8-point dogs in those games. Two years ago in the first round alone, Wisconsin-Milwaukee upset Alabama 83-73, UConn squeaked by Central Florida 77-71 as a 19-point favorite, Bucknell stunned Kansas 64-63, and Vermont took Syracuse to OT and won 60-57.

With so many games in March, it’s easy to forget how competitive smaller schools can be. How about Vermont in 2005 and tiny Holy Cross a few years ago? The Crusaders faced Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the tournament opener as a 10-point dog and covered in a close 72-68 decision. Holy Cross also gave mighty Kansas, with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and then coach Roy Williams, a scare a few years ago.

At first glance, some of the games look like mismatches. However, good handicappers are skilled in the art of careful analysis and patience. Every year, it seems, one or two little known teams make memorable runs.

Butler, from the Horizon League, is used to playing in the Big Dance. A few years ago, Butler topped Mississippi State 47-46 and then upset Louisville, 79-71. Sports bettors should note it is not wise to take big favorites on the money-line. The payoff is poor, and successful sports wagering is as much about money management as in picking winners. Taking a shot with big dogs is smarter than $900 wagers to win $100 on -900 favorites.

Upsets happen all the time!

It’s the old NFL axiom that, "On any given Sunday" one team can beat another regardless of record or talent. Sometimes the better team simply has a bad night shooting the basketball, or the big underdog can’t miss. One of the most memorable upsets came in the 1985 NCAA Finals when +10 underdog Villanova upset mighty Georgetown 66-64. The Wildcats hit 22-of-28 field goals (78 percent) for the game! No matter how big an underdog is, if they shoot 78 percent they’re not going to be easy to defeat.

Also, some small schools happen to have NBA-caliber talent. Miami of Ohio made a memorable run in 1999 with future NBA star Wally Szczerbiak. Miami went 24-8 SU/17-14 ATS that season, upsetting Washington (59-58) and defeating Utah (66-58) as a +8 dog before falling to Kentucky as a +10 dog.

You never know. Schools like Niagara, Davidson, Wright State, or North Texas just might be showcasing future NBA talent this month. Other times, a small school has a great coach or a collection of talented kids who play tough defense and believe in themselves. In one March tourney, the Detroit Titans upset UCLA 56-53 and Weber State beat mighty North Carolina 76-74 as a +14 dog!

Teams are generally motivated to play in the NCAA tourney, but this isn’t always the case with the NIT. Some teams that were hoping to get to the Big Dance are disappointed at being selected for the lower-seeded NIT and aren’t always ready to give their best effort.

Sometimes there are look-ahead spots, where a high-seeded team might be looking past an opponent it might not take seriously. This appeared to happen with Kansas against Holy Cross. The Jayhawks needed a second half push to top the Crusaders 70-59 as a 29-point favorite.

It wouldn’t have been the first time a small school upset a big-name program. So don’t take the big favorites on the money-line and simply lay points on the more famous conference or school. Tourney time is loaded with big surprises.