Method of the Madness

March 18, 2008 6:00 PM
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By David Stratton | Beginning Thursday and continuing for three weeks, sports bettors will be absorbed in the daunting task of picking round-by-round winners in the NCAA basketball tournament.

While more money will be bet in Nevada sports books than on last month’s Super Bowl, in office pools around the country, workplace productivity will take a hit as fans make countless copies of tournament brackets on their Xerox machines and pore over the match-ups, hoping to find lower seeds capable of the upset.

Welcome to March Madness.

Whether it’s five "dimes" on Kansas at 5-1 to win the whole thing, or five bucks in an office pool to pick the most winners, billions of dollars are expected to bet on the tournament.

Add in the cryptic presence of online betting and big-bucks contests sponsored by sports bars and other promoters, you have, "by far the biggest gambling event of the year," according to Victor Matheson, an expert on sports economics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

On Sunday night, when the NCAA announced the 65-team field, brackets showing first-round match-ups turned into betting sheets as Nevada oddsmakers quickly added betting lines.

No reliable statistic exists on how much money is gambled nationwide on the tournament. An oft-cited FBI estimate of $2.5 billion was dismissed recently by the bureau, which said the FBI has never done a study of sports gambling.

Las Vegas lawyer Anthony Cabot, an expert on sports gambling, estimated that Americans bet up to $100 billion on sports annually – and the two biggest events are the Super Bowl and the NCAA men’s tournament. "There’s no question that both of them are huge."

Sports bettors – especially fans of college basketball – find a cornucopia of betting opportunities over the tournament’s 22-day run.

Nevada sports books offer a range of bets – sides, totals, first- and second-half bets, parlays and futures’ odds – to pique the interest of players.

GamingToday will provide game-by-game analysis, selections and other handicapping information, posted on its newly-expanded website, gamingtoday.com, beginning on Wednesday and continuing through the Finals on April 7.

For now, GT will evaluate a few teams that have the potential of winning the entire tournament, and offer some suggestions in filling out those brackets in your office pool.

As you would expect, No. 1 seeds have won the most national titles – 13 since the 64-team field was established in 1985. No. 2 seeds have reached the title game 10 times and won four of them, while No. 3 seeds have won three titles in eight tries.

Only three titles were won by lower-seeded teams – one each for a fourth-, sixth- and eighth-seeded team.

This year, North Carolina, UCLA and Kansas appear capable of making a run to the Finals, with Kansas being the most likely choice. But, at odds of 5-1, there’s not enough value to bet on Kansas, which has to reel off six straight wins.

Instead, a couple of No. 3 seeds – Stanford and Wisconsin – and to a lesser extent, No. 4-seeded Connecticut appear to have the tools to make a run at a title.

Plus, their pre-tournament odds, Stanford at 25-1, Wisconsin, 40-1 and Connecticut, 50-1, are attractive enough to justify a future bet.

Here’s a closer look at their chances:

• Stanford: The Cardinal took UCLA, arguably the best team in the country, to the wire in three match-ups, of which one was called a "travesty" because of poor officiating. Stanford has the inside game to match-up with its stiffest potential opponent in the Sweet 16 round, Texas, though they would have to find a way to slow down Memphis if they square off in the Regional Finals. Nonetheless, they have the winning combination of tough defense, a strong post and free-throw shooting to make a Final Four run.

• Wisconsin: With a defense that allows less than 55 points a game, even the top teams in the country will have a hard time scoring on the Badgers. They’re not flashy, but they have an efficient offense, choreographed by experienced guards, solid post players, a smothering defense and a highly-underrated coach in Bo Ryan. It might not be a sexy combination, but it should be good enough to ride to the Final Four.

• Connecticut: Known for its tenacious defense – especially in the paint – this UConn squad fills the mold established by coach Jim Calhoun. Throw in the Big East’s best point guard, A. J. Price, and you have a very dangerous No. 4 seed. Two years ago, the Huskies advanced to the Elite 8 before they were derailed by George Mason. They may not let Cinderella ruin their party this time around.

From high to low stakes

In addition to betting mania in Nevada sports books, March Madness means bracket contests galore, from the typical office pool that will generate a few bucks for some lucky player to pools that get as high as $100,000.

Regardless of the stakes, the pool require picking round-by-round winners, irrespective of point spreads and betting lines.

While it helps to handicap the individual match-ups, there are a few trends to keep in mind when selecting which seeds will move on.

In the first round:

First, a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed in the first round since the current tournament format was established in 1985.

The No. 2 seed is 88-4 against the No. 15 seed.

The No. 3 seed is 77-15 versus the No. 14 seed.

No. 4 seed is 74-18 versus No. 13 seed.

No. 5 is 63-29 versus No. 12.

No. 6 is also 63-29 versus No. 11.

No. 7 is 57-35 versus No. 10

And No. 8 is 42-50 versus No. 9.

The top two seeds reach the Sweet 16 round 80 percent of the time, while the third and fourth seeds only reach it 45 percent of the time.

Not a single 15th or 16th seed has reached the Sweet 16, while only six 13 and 14 seeds have made it, none of which advanced.

There are other trends and stats on how seeds fare, but the best tool is to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of teams and how they match up – handicapping information that will be available throughout the tournament on GT’s website, gamingtoday.com.