Look for NCAA favorites to play even better

Mar 19, 2002 5:00 AM

So far, this season’s NCAA Tournament has not been a disappointment, with the opening weekend full of upsets and surprises.

Of course, most of the buzzer beaters and major upsets ­­occur during the first weekend of play, as teams having great regular seasons look past their first opponent to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

This was evidenced when North Carolina-Wilmington upset USC, a team many felt was Duke’s top competitor in the East Region. It could even be seen in the strong performance from 16th seeded Holy Cross against a very good Kansas team.

As the tournament goes on, the really good teams tend to play better. Last season, the favorites went 7-1 straight up and 6-2 against the spread in the Round of 16. That overwhelming show of favoritism is a bit strange.

Last season, the bookies finally caught up. In the previous two NCAA Tournaments, the favorites were just 9-7 SU and 5-10-1 ATS in the Round of 16.
The Tournament didn’t have any real Cinderella teams last season. Each of the schools in the Sweet 16 was from a major conference, with the exception of Gonzaga. And, it was hard to call the Zags a Cinderella coming off two straight tournaments in which they reached the Sweet 16.

Last year’s Sweet 16 was full of powerhouse teams, like Illinois, Arizona, Michigan State, Duke, Stanford and Maryland. Each school, along with talented Temple and USC, danced into the Elite Eight.

Probably due to the success of the dogs over the previous two seasons, those teams weren’t the usual overwhelming favorites. Only Arizona and Kentucky failed to cover the spreads as favorites, with Kentucky losing outright to USC.

The 2000 NCAA Tournament was much wilder than last season’s as most of the power teams faltered down the stretch. Four favorites lost straight up and five failed to cover the spread in the Sweet 16.

LSU, Gonzaga, Duke and Tennessee each lost, while Wisconsin, Purdue, Florida and North Carolina moved to the Elite Eight as underdogs. Tulsa, a Cinderella that year, was favored over Miami by four in the Sweet 16 and by three against North Carolina in the Elite Eight, before falling to the Tar Heels, 59-55.

The 1999 NCAA Tournament gave bookies the most problems in recent years, particularly in the Round of 16. While the favorites went 5-3 SU, they went just 2-5-1 ATS. Duke, Connecticut and Michigan State were clearly the best teams in the country, but that didn’t translate into winnings for the fans that backed them. The trio went just 2-4 ATS in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, despite advancing to the Final Four.

Gonzaga was a real Cinderella team that season, making its first NCAA appearance in some time and, along with Ohio State, flustered the linemakers

The Zags were a one-point underdog to Florida in the Sweet 16, beating the Gators, 73-72, before covering against eventual champ Connecticut in the Elite Eight, 67-62. Ohio State was a five-point underdog to Auburn and then a 4½-point dog against St. John’s before making the Final Four.

This season there are some powerhouse teams in the Round of 16, but also a couple of surprises. There are no definite trends when it comes to the second weekend, at least not over the last few seasons. While knowledge is helpful, it is important to remember that certain trends mean very little.

When it comes to handicapping any sport, the more you know about a particular team, the better off you are. Despite a number of the important players returning to Gonzaga this year, the Zags fell victim to Wyoming, a lower-seed, in the first round.

That goes to show how ­­unpredictable college basketball is. This weekend’s games should have the same drama, but not the same startling ­­conclusions.