The insanity that was the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is in the rear view mirror, and the hard numbers show a very different story than the mainstream media is reporting.
Just once, I wish I could turn on SportsCenter and find out what was going on against the spread. But ESPN doesn’t do that, obviously, nor does CBS, TNT, TBS, TruTV or any of the other major networks, whether they’re involved with televising the Big Dance or not. That, of course, leaves a void for me to fill.
Carnage! Madness! Brackets in flames, in shreds! That was the message from the networks over the weekend. Bettors, however, saw a very different story. Betting favorites, in fact, had a winning weekend against the spread over the first four full days of the tournament.
I threw out all the games where there was no true favorite and a pointspread of -1.5 or less. Many of those games – like Notre Dame vs Stephen F Austin on Sunday; a disastrous result for many books – had a switch of favorites at some point between the opening and closing lines. Notre Dame +1.5 and Stephen F Austin +1.5 were both widely available on gameday as the betting markets shifted and shimmied to the dance of the wiseguy money coming in.
With the Irish winning by one, I could call it an ATS loss as a favorite for Mike Brey’s squad, but I don’t think that accurately presents the concept I’m looking to illustrate here – how the “real” favorites did over the weekend as everyone was freaking out about all the “upsets” in the brackets. Games with spreads of less than -2 were treated as pick ’em games for the purpose of this analysis.
Favorites of -2 or higher went 15-14 ATS in the opening round, then 8-6 ATS over the weekend, a combined 23-20 ATS. If you bet every favorite for one unit, you slowed a slight profit; if you bet every dog, you lost more than five units with juice included in the mix. For all the “dogs are dominating” jargon that filled the airwaves, the dogs, in fact, were not dominating here in Las Vegas.
From a totals standpoint, blindly betting every game OVER was a moneymaking strategy in the first round, with my numbers showing a 19-12-1 edge for those 32 games. The new 30 second shot clock certainly had an impact, and there were a good handful of late game foul-fests where the late flurry of “scramble points” were aided by that shorter shot clock in this year’s tourney compared to season’s past.
But the pendulum swung back the other way over the weekend with the UNDER going 10-6. The aggregate numbers don’t tell us too much here – in a very short sample size, this result looks fairly “randomized” to me.
It was a disastrous weekend for the PAC-12 both SU and ATS, with Oregon the lone team left standing. The SEC didn’t fare much better, also sending only one team to the Sweet 16, as did the Big East and the lone “mid-major” entrant still standing; Gonzaga from the WCC. 75% of the remaining field comes from the ACC, Big 10 and Big 12, who have cemented their respective places as the best conferences in college basketball this season.
But when it comes to covering spreads in games that they win, those three conferences were the only ones that had any troubles. The old adage about “just pick the SU winner and ATS victories will follow” held true for most of the weekend. The SU winner covered at a 36-11-1 ATS clip, regardless of how big (or small) that point spread was.
But those 11 losses (SU wins but ATS defeats) came from Duke, Miami-FL, North Carolina, Oklahoma (twice), Iowa, Maryland and Notre Dame. That’s seven teams from those three powerhouse conferences (six of them still standing) suffering ATS losses in SU wins, a relative rarity and clear indication that they are not being undervalued. Texas A&M, Providence and Oregon were the other three teams to win a game without covering the spread over the weekend.
And for all the talk about carnage, there are only four teams seeded higher than 5 still standing; well within the “normal” range of recent tournaments. I’m not calling a 5 knocking off a 4 an upset, sorry, and in several instances, neither did the point spread.
So when we look at the list of Sweet 16 “Shockers” we’ve got only four to talk about: 6 seed Notre Dame, 7 seed Wisconsin, 10 seed Syracuse and 11 seed Gonzaga. But from a Vegas standpoint, the fact that those four teams are still standing is anything but a shocker.
Notre Dame was favored at tip-off in both of their tourney games, so there can’t be any shock that they won them both. Syracuse was in the pick’em range against Dayton and -6 (or higher) against Middle Tennessee – no shocker that they went 2-0 last weekend either. Gonzaga was the favorite at tip-off in both of their games.
So of the four lowest seeded teams still standing, only one of them actually pulled off any kind of an upset. Wisconsin was favored over Pitt in the first round, but closed in the +4 range against Xavier on Sunday. Had the Badgers’ Bronson Koenig missed the first of his two made three pointers in the final 12 seconds, the Musketeers likely would have won and covered. So even that one legit underdog win (at +4, nothing crazy) came by a razor thin margin.
Yes, the TV talking heads have a vested interest in making everything look wilder and crazier than it actually is or was.