The opening weekend of 2015 NCAA tournament action was incredible—both on the courts and in Las Vegas. Sportsbook crowds were bigger than I’ve ever seen them. Certainly, I’ve never seen big crowds quieter than during that first day when an astounding 12 of 16 underdogs covered the spread. Throw in the first four “play in” games—in which the ’dogs swept the board—and underdogs covered 16 of the first 20 games in the Big Dance.
The betting public always leans too heavily on favorites in March, and generally pays a price for doing so—but never like this.
Last week I mentioned how handicapping the first weekend was all about evaluating “chess matches.” You definitely saw that play out. The classic strengths (defense, guard play, rebounding) generally held up. The classic weaknesses (soft inside defense, over-reliance on 3-pointers, poor coaching tactics) sent many teams home.
How do you handicap from this point forward when all the chess winners are now playing each other? You’ll hear many veteran analysts this week say something to the effect of “it’s all about the matchups.” That’s just as true now as it’s ever been, as chess basically turns to Rock, Paper, Scissors, where what works great against one team won’t work at all against the other.
For example: Offenses that attack the basket will bully relatively passive inside defenses, but will run into brick walls against teams that sport a tall, physical inside presence. Meanwhile, offenses that depend on 3-pointers can shoot over those brick walls, but will find it tough getting open looks against hustling perimeter defenses.
With this in mind, here are some tips for successfully betting this week’s Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games:
Tip #1: Know the strengths, weaknesses and preferred styles of all 16 remaining teams! If you watched a lot of games last weekend, you probably have a good sense for this. Visit your favorite basketball stat site to review key performance numbers on offense, defense, rebounding and pace (especially pace!), so you have an accurate picture of all eight Sweet 16 matchups. Then go back and review your notes when the winners play in the regional finals.
Tip #2: Now that you know each team’s key weakness, determine if their opponent is capable of exploiting it. If the answer is obviously “yes” for one team and “no” for the other, you probably have a smart bet on your hands. If both offenses can exploit the other’s defense, then the “Over” might be the best play. If neither offense is positioned to perform well, look to the “Under.”
Now, Rock, Paper, Scissors by itself isn’t enough, because we still have to consider line value. Generally speaking, “whoever wins, covers” has always been a good rule of thumb at this point. Problem is, there are still some pricey teams remaining in the tournament laying inflated numbers. Kentucky (36-0) may have one of the best teams in college basketball history, but they’re still 0-2 against the spread so far in this tournament. Wisconsin is another No. 1 seed that failed to cash in its two tourney contests.
So which teams are most likely to be overvalued this week? Media darlings; teams that shot over their heads last week (don’t forget to read those box scores!); and teams that lucked into easy draws (review the brackets!).
Who’s most likely to be underrated? Grinders that advanced despite shooting below their season average; teams from non-TV conferences that have great guards and/or strong defenses; and teams that have developed an “us against the world” chip on their shoulders.
Tip #3: Now do a quick “market evaluation” to determine whether each of the Sweet 16 teams is likely to be “overrated,” “underrated” or “properly rated,” based on the bullet points above. This will only take you a few minutes, but will help isolate potential potholes or pathways.
Whatever you do when you get to the counter this weekend, good luck. I’ll be back next week to break down handicapping strategies for Final Four weekend. Those strategies may be as simple as, “Can anyone challenge Kentucky?!” Or maybe the 2015 Dance has a big surprise in store before Indianapolis.
Scott Spreitzer is a Las Vegas-based professional handicapper and bettor, and host of Pregame.com’s First Preview sports-betting show, which airs at 10 a.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1100-AM/100.9-FM. Follow him at @ScottWins.