With football taking a break, it’s time to tip off with basketball plays

It’s common practice for local sports books to offer bettors a couple of free drinks after they place a wager. But last weekend, it was the suits behind the counter who needed a few cocktails to numb the pain—not to mention some towels to mop up the blood—because the only thing on NFL Championship Game Sunday that took more of a beating than Jay Cutler’s reputation was the Las Vegas bookmaking community.

After connecting with a series of jabs throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs, the betting public delivered a devastating uppercut to the jaw when the favored Steelers and Packers—two of the NFL’s most popular teams—punched their Super Bowl tickets with spread-covering victories over the Jets and Bears, respectively. On top of that, Pittsburgh and Green Bay also covered first-half lines.

Fortunately, I was among those who took part in the heist, going 4-2 with my picks while clearing $602 and pushing my bankroll to $6,231. All of which means the unthinkable is now in play: With profitable performances the next two weeks, I can climb back to even.

Hey, I know “climbing back to even” isn’t exactly setting the bar high. But considering where things stood a couple of months ago, if I do get back to par it would be as remarkable an accomplishment as Cutler being voted the NFL’s toughest man.

With the Super Bowl still a week away, our focus shifts to basketball for the first time this season, so let’s begin with a betting primer. (Note: All point spreads are projected.)

College basketball by the numbers: The little guys have been the big winners from a betting perspective so far this season. Through Jan. 24, Texas—at 11-3 against the spread—was the only team from a power conference that ranked among the top five in point-spread success. The others were Oakland (15-6-1 ATS), Duquesne (9-2-1), George Mason (13-5) and Indiana State (13-6). Bringing up the rear are four squads that each have just three spread-covers all season: Mississippi State (3-11 ATS), Texas Tech (3-12), Central Michigan (3-12-2) and San Diego (which, at 3-14, is dead last among 300 Division I teams).

On the over/under front, California (13-4 “over”), Oakland (14-6), Butler (13-6), South Dakota State (12-2) and Cal State Northridge (10-2) have been trending toward high-scoring contests. On the low end are Western Illinois (10-0 “under”), Central Michigan (13-3), San Diego (13-4), Illinois State (14-5), Western Carolina (12-4), Hawaii (11-4), Cincinnati (11-4) and Seton Hall (12-5).

NBA by the numbers: On the scoreboard, the Philadelphia 76ers are a sub-.500 team (19-25 through 44 games). But at the betting window, Philly has been money in the bank, cashing at a league-best 28-15-1 clip (including a 23-9 ATS stretch through Jan. 24). The Knicks are second in line at 27-15-2 ATS, but much of that was the result of a torrid 21-9-1 ATS start.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you’d be better off giving your money to charity than backing the Kings (10-32 overall, 16-25-1 ATS), Wizards (13-30, 16-27 ATS) or the LeBron-less Cavaliers (8-36, 15-28-1 ATS).

Here are two interesting NBA trends to follow: Through the first three months of the season, home underdogs were cashing at nearly 55 percent, and the “under” has paid out 55 percent of the time in non-overtime games. The NBA’s top “under” teams through Jan. 24: New Orleans (32-14), Indiana (27-14) and Chicago (29-16).

College basketball picks (Jan. 29-30): Wichita State (-14) vs. Bradley ($55); Vanderbilt (-13½) vs. Arkansas ($55); Missouri (+7) at Texas ($44); Air Force (+4½) at TCU ($44); USC (+6½) at Arizona ($44); Villanova (-6) vs. Georgetown ($33); Connecticut (-5) vs. Louisville ($33); Valparaiso (+3) vs. Butler ($33); Washington State (pick) vs. Washington; Seton Hall (-3) vs. Providence ($33).

NBA picks (Jan. 28-30): Knicks (+4) at Hawks ($55); Heat-Thunder OVER ($55); Celtics (+4½) at Lakers ($44); Hornets (pick) at Suns ($44); Warriors (-5½) vs. Bobcats ($33); Bulls (-2½) vs. Magic ($33); Hawks (+5) at Mavericks ($33).

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Michael Vick? Gone. Drew Brees? Gone. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning? Gone and gone. Mark Sanchez and Jay Cutler? One win away from the Super Bowl. Somebody please wake me up from this nightmare before something really scary happens—like Steven Tyler showing up on my TV as a judge for a karaoke contest. (What? That’s real, too? Oh, come on!)