It’s all about guard play and depth. No, it’s about experience and coaching. Scratch that: The only thing that matters is momentum. And, of course, defense. And free-throw shooting. And offensive rebounding. And who ate what for the pregame meal.
If I had a dollar for every theory I’ve heard espoused for how to handicap the NCAA tournament, I’d be the one offering $1 billion for picking a perfect tournament bracket, not Warren Buffett. Thing is, there are valid points to every theory. (Well, except the one about pregame meals … I think.) The best advice I can offer as you attempt to turn a profit during the three-week tourney: Develop your own philosophy—just don’t become paralyzed by it (yes, I’m looking right at you, Mr. I’ll Never Bet a Double-Digit Favorite).
Personally, I put a lot of stock in both positive and negative momentum come March Madness, as well as coaching (in part because Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski will have far greater influence over supposedly unbiased officials than, say, Mercer’s Bob Hoffman). However, in games with small point spreads—those expected to go down to the wire—free-throw shooting can override everything.
But what the hell do I know? Two weeks ago, I gave you seven teams to ride during conference tournament week, five of which—North Carolina, Oklahoma, St. John’s, Long Beach State and Fresno State—combined to go 2-5 straight-up and 1-6 against the spread in their league tourneys. Now you know why Mr. Buffett just called and offered to put me in his will if I hit all seven of my Thursday-Friday tournament selections. (Note: All picks are made using the best available odds as of March 18.)
No. 7 Oregon (-5½) vs. No. 10 BYU (March 20): Why would I choose to lay points with a team that got waxed in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals (an 82-63 loss to UCLA) … and is facing an opponent that enters the Big Dance on a 10-2 run … the same opponent that went to Oregon in December and took the Ducks to overtime before losing 100-96? Well, for starters, Oregon preceded the loss to UCLA with an eight-game winning streak (7-1 ATS).
More importantly, BYU is a fraud. The Cougars placed second in a watered-down West Coast Conference that produced just one other NCAA tournament team, Gonzaga (more on the Zags shortly). They’re also just 6-9 (5-10 ATS) in their last 15 games away from Provo, Utah—and that was with guard Kyle Collinsworth on the court. Collinsworth, who averaged 14 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists this season, tore his ACL in a 75-64 WCC championship-game loss to Gonzaga.
No. 10 St. Joseph’s (+4½) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (March 20): I may have misfired on those five aforementioned conference tournament recommendations, but there is one I did nail: St. Joe’s, which won the Atlantic 10 tournament championship (the same A-10 that put six teams in the Big Dance).
Not only are the Hawks on a 20-5 roll dating to mid-December, but they’re 13-6-1 ATS in their last 20, including 5-1 ATS as an underdog. But here’s the really impressive stat: 10-2. That’s St. Joe’s record in games decided by six points or fewer. Seeing that UConn has just one true scorer (Shabazz Napier), this figures to be a nail-biter. Advantage: Hawks.
No. 5 Oklahoma-No. 12 North Dakota State UNDER 150½ (March 20): Not sure what’s more surprising: that a Lon Kruger-coached team ranked seventh nationally in scoring offense (82.2 points per game) or 308th in scoring defense (76 ppg). Either way, those stats—plus the fact North Dakota State is the top-shooting team in the country at 51 percent—explains why this is the third-highest total of the 32 opening-round games. So why play it “under”? Because both teams got better defensively down the stretch (Oklahoma allowed 71.3 ppg in its last eight games, while eight of the Bison’s last nine opponents failed to eclipse 60 points).
Consider also that the Sooners will have had a full week off by the time this game tips, while the Bison will have been idle for nine days. That’s a lot of downtime at this point in the season—especially heading to a neutral court.
No. 7 New Mexico (-3½) vs. No. 10 Stanford (March 21): It’s a March tradition: Dick Vitale whines about a big-name school (usually his beloved Duke) getting hosed by the tournament selection committee, and the Mountain West Conference actually does get hosed by the selection committee: New Mexico is one blown 16-point second-half lead at San Diego State from carrying a 10-game winning streak into this tournament … and it drew a No. 7 seed?
Expect the Lobos to use the slight (along with last year’s stunning opening-round loss to 14th-seeded Harvard) as added motivation. Not that they’ll need it in this contest, as they own virtually every statistical and matchup edge against Stanford, which is coming off an ugly 84-59 Pac-12 tournament loss to UCLA—the Cardinal’s fourth loss in their last seven contests. #Momentum!
No. 11 Providence (+4) vs. No. 6 North Carolina (March 21): I mentioned it two weeks ago, and it bears repeating: No team east of Maryland Parkway was more maddening this season than North Carolina, whose inexplicable losses were trumped only by its inexplicable wins. But even in the midst of a late-season 12-game win streak, the Tar Heels showed signs of cracking, beating North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame by a total of seven points before losing to Duke in the season finale and Pitt in the ACC tourney.
Conversely, Providence scored three wins last weekend to capture the reconfigured Big East crown, part of a 7-2 run for the Friars. And while UNC has followed up a 9-0 ATS run with five straight non-covers, Providence has cashed in seven of nine, going 5-1 ATS as an underdog.
No. 3 Creighton (-13½) vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette (March 21): You’d see me betting on Vladimir Putin to win Humanitarian of the Year honors before you’d see me laying this many points with Creighton … if the Bluejays were facing an opponent that played a lick of defense. They’re not. UL-Lafayette is yielding more than 75 ppg—and that’s with the Rajun’ Cajuns facing Sun Belt Conference competition for the last 2½ months, not an opponent led by likely national player of the year Doug McDermott (27 ppg). Don’t be surprised to see Creighton, which has scored at least 80 points in 18 of its 33 games, flirt with triple digits in this one.
No. 9 Oklahoma State (-2) vs. No. 8 Gonzaga (March 21): Gonzaga is 28-6, won its regular-season and conference tournament titles (yet again!) with an 18-3 mark, and is 12-3 in first-round NCAA tournament games since 1999, including 5-0 the last five years. Oklahoma State is 21-12, finished eighth in the 10-team Big 12, didn’t make it out of the quarterfinals of the conference tourney and hasn’t won an NCAA game since 2009. And yet the lower-seeded Cowboys are favored—and Vegas bookies can’t seem to buy a bet on Gonzaga. Well, the Zags ain’t getting my money, either. Although before betting Okie State, I wouldn’t mind getting a peek at the team’s pregame menu …