Beware those ‘no name’ teams

Mar 16, 2004 8:26 AM

No, it’s not your imagination. There’s an endless cycle of college basketball games to watch and wager on. It’s that time of year again, as NCAA tournament play is in full swing and one of the most enjoyable times with a seemingly endless stream of action and excitement.

Big name schools often end up in the Final Four: Kansas, Texas, Syracuse and Marquette last season; Indiana, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Kansas two years ago; 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 small, lesser-known schools can’t compete with the big boys, especially when you look at one 40-minute tournament game. There are countless examples for sports bettors. Look no further than tiny Holy Cross. Last year the Crusaders had to face Dwayne Wade and Marquette in the tournament opener, and as a 10-point dog, Holy Cross covered in a 72-68 game. You may recall Holy Cross giving mighty Kansas, with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and coach Roy Williams, a close game a few years ago.

On March 14, 2002, Florida Atlantic gave Alabama a run before losing 86-78 as an 18-point dog while Davidson lost 69-64 to Ohio State as a 12-point dog. The next day Creighton took Florida to double overtime before upsetting the Gators 83-82 as a +10 dog. 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, which is important for those of you who like to look for value with the money-line.

One of the big surprises a year ago was Butler. The Bulldogs topped Mississippi State 47-46, and then upset Louisville, 79-71. Which brings up a good point for serious sports bettors: 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 it is picking winners. Taking a shot with a big dog who you think might be able to hang in there is much smarter than wagering $900 to win $100, for example on a minus-900 favorite, because these 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 from the field. One of the most memorable NCAA upsets came in the 1985 Finals when Villanova ”” a +10 dog ”” stunned Georgetown 66-64. The Wildcats hit 22-of-28 field goals ”” 78% for the game! No matter how big an underdog is, if they shoot 78% they’re not going to be easy to defeat.

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/17-14 ATS that season and upset Washington in the NCAA tournament, 59-58 as a +2 dog, beat Utah 66-58 as a +8 dog before falling to Kentucky as a +10 dog. You never know — schools like Liberty, East Tennessee State, Illinois-Chicago and Louisiana Lafayette 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 and they can upset traditional powers. Five 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 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. For example, which college basketball conference is more known, the Atlantic 10 or the Ohio Valley? Two years ago 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. That’s what appeared to happen in the game I mentioned earlier, Kansas against Holy Cross. Kansas needed a second half push to top the Crusaders 70-59 as a 29-point favorite, 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 don’t simply lay the points on the more famous conference or school, because tourney time is loaded with big surprises