There’s room for little guy, to a point

Mar 18, 2003 3:58 AM

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 in the Final Four: Indiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Kansas last season. Duke, Arizona, Michigan State and Maryland in 2001. Large, high profile schools like this 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. There are countless examples for sports bettors. Look no further than last year’s tournament: On March 14, 2002, Florida Atlantic gave Alabama a run before losing as an 18-point dog, 86-78. Davidson lost 69-64 to Ohio State as a 12-point dog, 69-64.

The next day Creighton, a 10-point underdog, took Florida to double overtime before pulling off an 83-82 upset win. That same week in the NIT tourney, Princeton lost to Louisville by one point as a +13 dog, while fellow Ivy League member Yale upset Rutgers of the Big East 67-65. Not only did all of these big dogs cover the number, several won straight up. That’s important for those of you who like to look for value with the money line.

Serious bettors would not be wise to take big favorites on the money-line. The payoff is poor, and successful sports wagering is as much about money management as picking winners. Taking a shot with a big dog who you think might be able to hang is much smarter than wagering $900 to win $100, for example, on a minus-900 favorite. Surprising upsets happen all the time.

Several things are happening. One is the old NFL axiom, "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 NCAA upsets came in the 1985 Finals when Villanova, a +10 dog, upset mighty Georgetown 66-64. The Wildcats hit 22-of-28 field goals (78 percent) for the game!

Another reason is that some of these smaller 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 and 17-14 ATS that season, going on to upset Washington and Utah as single-digit underdogs in the NCAA tournament before falling to Kentucky as a +10 dog.

You won’t see Ohio University’s Brandon Hunter in the tournament this March, which is too bad because you’re likely to see the 6-foot-8 star in the NBA next season. Schools like Creighton, East Tennessee State or Wisconsin-Milwaukee 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, believe in themselves and wind up defeating traditional powers. Four years ago in the 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 tournament, but this isn’t always the case with the NIT. Some teams hoping to get to the Big Dance are disappointed at being selected for the lower-seeded NIT and sometimes don’t give their best effort. For example, which college basketball conference is more known, the Atlantic 10 or the Ohio Valley? Last year in the NIT, Tennessee Tech of the Ohio Valley was a +12 dog against Dayton, yet won straight up 68-59.

Sometimes there are look-ahead spots, where a high-seeded team might be looking past an opponent it might not take seriously. A year ago in the NCAA South first round, you may recall a talented Kansas team struggling to beat Holy Cross as a 29-point favorite! Kansas needed a second half push to top the Crusaders 70-59 in what would have been an upset for the ages.

It also 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 the points on the more famous conference or school.

Tourney time is loaded with big surprises.

QUOTE BOX

"Serious bettors would not be wise to take big favorites on the money-line. The payoff is poor, and successful sports wagering is as much about money management as picking winners."