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).