Is it best to just forget handicapping best practices during March Madness?
Of all the seasons of sports betting, the NCAA tournament is the most paradoxical to me. The nature of March Madness often turns conventional handicapping upon its head.
For example, in all college basketball games since 2006, favorites have lost against the spread by an average of .17 points. So when typically betting CBB favorites, you not only have to overcome laying 11 to win 10 but you also have to overcome an average of .17 points per game.
Blindly betting underdogs does not allow you to overcome the vig, but that favorite premium makes the dog side the starting point of college basketball handicaps. Except perhaps during the NCAA Tournament.
In theory, betting events have different participants in the market. March Madness has far more novice bettors than for example, December college basketball. That means a more pronounced favorite bias should offer even bigger value on underdogs this time of year.
History, though, does not back up that theory. In the Tournament’s modern era of 64 teams starting in 1985, there have been almost 500 favorites of at least double digits. The teams laying the big lumber (the ones you would expect to have the biggest premium) have actually covered more than half the time!
Another accepted handicapping truth is that novice bettors remember vividly what they see most recently. During most sports seasons, fading impressive performances the next game offers betting value. But in the Big Dance, momentum seems to be a tangible factor that cannot be ignored.
Teams often get hot and stay hot. So when a team covers the spread by 20+ points, the public is often right to back the momentum the next game – while the “value” bettors take 9-points when their power numbers say the spread should only be +7. Those same value bettors are left to shake their head when the favorite keeps on rolling, winning by 18.
Fading marquee teams – that always offers value, right? Not necessarily when many of these marquee teams have coaches with tons of tournament experience and success. The Big Dance is simply a different animal – with games played at unfamiliar locations, under the extra bright lights of intense TV coverage; plus an unusual Thursday/Saturday and Friday/Sunday schedule.
All of these uncommon circumstances make tourney coaching experience all the more valuable. So when the public backs the marquee teams – like Louisville, Michigan State, Duke, Kansas, and Florida – at the same time they are correctly backing the ones with the most tournament coaching experience.
Even 28 years of modern-era bracket history is not holding to form this year. Prior to last year, 15-seeds won 2 of 108 games against 2-seeds. In the last two years, 15-seeds have won 3 of 8. Prior to Sunday’s action, out of 456 Sweet 16 teams, only 7 (1.5%) were seeded worse than 12. On Sunday, 25% of the teams advancing to the Sweet 16 were seeded worse than 12.
With grim resolve, here is one eye-popping upcoming historical bracket trend: Out of 224 Elite 8 teams in the modern era, only one has been seeded worse than No. 11 – which means Florida Gulf Coast, Oregon, and LaSalle would be making history with victories. I won’t be betting against it.
RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com - and co-host of FIRST PREVIEW, heard Sunday through Friday night at 11 p.m. on ESPN 1100/98.9 FM. Follow on twitter: @RJinVegas. Discussion of this article continues at Pregame.com. Contact RJ at [email protected]