Veteran leadership. Coaching history. Free-throw shooting. Rebounding differential. Momentum (or lack thereof). Experience at point guard. Perimeter defense. Record away from home. Point-spread results.
There are as many ways to handicap the NCAA tournament as there are ways for UNLV to blow a second-half lead. My philosophy? Incorporate a little bit of everything without succumbing to paralysis by analysis. Well, that and win more money than you lose, something I did down the stretch of last year’s Big Dance, when I went 11-3, including 6-0 in the Final Four. (What about my 3-7 record in the opening weekend, you ask? Hmm, sorry, doesn’t ring a bell.)
If you’ve been following the tournament in recent years, you know it’s gotten much more difficult to forecast, as mid-majors (see Butler, VCU, George Mason, etc.) have made up ground on traditional powers like Kentucky and North Carolina that struggle with continuity because they frequently recruit one-and-done blue-chippers. Two prime examples that the gap between the haves and have-nots has narrowed: Last year’s Final Four included teams seeded third, fourth, eighth and 11th, and in this year’s 36 opening-round matchups there are just eight double-digit favorites.
Heck, one of this week’s games features a No. 3 seed that’s only a four-point favorite against a No. 14 seed—that’s like Chrissy Teigen barely being favored over Adele in a beauty contest. And guess what? I’m taking Adele as one of my 14 opening-weekend selections (note that all point spreads are as of March 13) …
$440 (to win $400) on Wichita State -6½ vs. VCU (March 15): VCU wore the glass slipper all the way to the Final Four a year ago. This time, it will take about two hours for the Rams’ carriage to turn into a pumpkin, as Wichita State is this year’s mid-major Cinderella. True, the Shockers (27-5) and Rams (28-6) basically have identical records, but Wichita faced far superior competition. Beyond that, the Shockers have the edge in almost every meaningful statistical category, from scoring to field-goal shooting to field-goal defense to rebounding.
Because the public remembers what VCU did last March, there is a lot of value here with Wichita, which is 12-4 against the spread in its last 16 games.
$330 (to win $300) on UNLV -5 vs. Colorado (March 15): Have I lost 114 consecutive times picking for or against UNLV’s football and basketball teams? Yep. Because of that, should local fans be scared that I’m backing the Rebels? Scared, no; downright terrified, absolutely.
Yeah, I know UNLV was inconsistent down the stretch, terrible outside of Las Vegas this year and is mired in a two-game Big Dance losing skid. I also know the Rebels couldn’t have asked for a better situation, playing close to home (Albuquerque) in an arena (The Pit) with which they’re familiar, against an opponent that a week ago was 19-11 and NIT-bound. UNLV matches up very well against Colorado, which lacks the physical post presence that has given Dave Rice’s crew fits this season. Also, remember that the Rebels pummeled the two Pac-12 teams (USC and Cal) they faced this year, winning by 11 and 17 points, respectively.
$110 (to win $100) on Belmont +4 vs. Georgetown (March 16): So why is the fourth-place team from the big-bad Big East laying just a couple of baskets to an Atlantic Sun Conference champ that has losses to South Carolina Upstate and Lipscomb on its ledger? Plenty of reasons, including: Belmont is riding a 14-game winning streak, is making its fifth tournament appearance in the last seven years and has a senior-laden squad that can put the ball in the hoop from anywhere on the court, while Georgetown is just 5-4 in its last nine overall, 2-5 in its last seven away from home and 1-6 ATS in its last seven as an NCAA tournament favorite.
$110 (to win $100) on Memphis -3½ vs. Saint Louis (March 16): Since Dec. 29, Memphis is 20-3, and those three defeats were by a total of six points. The Tigers have covered the spread in each of their last 10 victories, winning all 10 by an average of 22.8 points. Memphis, which began the year ranked 10th in the nation, is also on a 13-3 ATS run as a favorite, while Saint Louis has failed to cover in 10 of its last 14 as an underdog.
BEST OF THE REST (March 15): UConn -1½ vs. Iowa St. ($66); UNLV -2½ vs. Colorado, first half ($66); Baylor -7½ vs. South Dakota St. ($44); New Mexico State +6 vs. Indiana ($44). March 16: Cincinnati -2 vs. Texas ($77); North Carolina St. -2 vs. San Diego St. ($66); Purdue-St. Mary’s OVER 140 ($55); St. Bonaventure +6½ vs. Florida St. ($44); Missouri-Norfolk St. OVER 144½ ($44); Xavier-Notre Dame UNDER 124 ($33).