The first 52 games of the NCAA Tournament had plenty of betting takeaways.
The biggest one was the success of the Pac-12 during the five-day stretch. It started with UCLA rallying to beat Michigan State in the First Four on Thursday and was capped off by USC routing Kansas by 34 points in the last game of the second round on Monday. The Pac-12 went 9-1 straight-up and covered the spread in all nine wins. The only loss was Colorado falling to Florida State in the second round. There are four Pac-12 teams left in the tournament and they are guaranteed to get one to the Elite Eight with their two best teams remaining, Oregon and USC, clashing Sunday in the West Region.
The Big Ten didn’t have a good showing and only have one team left after sending nine to the big dance. Big Ten teams are 7-8 overall this tournament and 6-9 against the number. Ohio State and Purdue being upset by Oral Roberts and North Texas respectively were two of the biggest storylines in the first round. The conference went 1-5 straight-up in the second round and Michigan is the last team standing.
This is a surprise because the Big Ten had the perception as the best conference in college basketball with four teams as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. It’s an even bigger surprise that they struggled while playing in the state of Indiana. The Big Ten Tournament was hosted in Indianapolis so teams didn’t have to travel the week leading up to the NCAA Tournament. Also, in theory, the Big Ten schools near Indianapolis would’ve had an edge because of better traveling support despite the limited amount of tickets for fans.
The Big 12 was another conference regarded as one of the best in the country. They went 6-1 straight-up and 4-3 against the spread in the first round. The lone loss was another shocking first-round upset as Big 12 Tournament champions Texas lost to Abilene Christian in the final game of the first round late on Saturday night. The Big 12’s woes carried into the second round, as the league went 1-5 straight-up and 1-5 against the spread. Fittingly, No. 1 seed Baylor is the only Big 12 team left in Indianapolis.
Another takeaway from the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament was the totals, specifically the first-half totals. The first-half under bets went 3-1 on Thursday and 12-4 on Friday. That started to correct itself on Saturday when first-half unders went 8-7, but three of the games went over by a half-point of the closing first-half total. The second round is when things balanced out as the first-half under bet went 4-4 on both Sunday and Monday. The takeaway here is it took many teams at least 20 minutes to get comfortable on offense. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Sweet 16 games start off slow, as teams have five full days off between playing.
The other interesting total trend was the first eight games played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers, went under. Three of the last four games went over the total, including Oregon-Iowa and Maryland-Alabama soaring over, but this is something worth thinking about with four of the Sweet 16 games at the NBA arena. The 9-3 under trend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse carries weight because there’s an idea that team struggle to shoot with unfamiliar sight lines.
The other four Sweet 16 games will be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which is the home arena for Butler. Games at Hinkle went 7-4-1 to the over with the push coming in the USC-Kansas game. Playing in a smaller building that has sight lines that resembles what college players are used to should make shooting less of a struggle than in a NBA arena.
Here are my thoughts on the Sweet 16 games. I will have potential bets in bold and will tweet out my official plays.
Six of the top seven seeded teams in this region were eliminated in the first two rounds. I wrote last week about how the committee specifically botched the seeding in this region, which made the path very challenging for No. 1 Illinois. The Illini ended up losing to a very under-seeded No. 8 Loyola. If you don’t think Loyola was under-seeded, look at how the betting market has viewed them over the last several weeks. Loyola closed as a seven-point underdog against Illinois in the second round on Sunday. Exactly a week earlier, Illinois was a 6.5-point favorite in the Big Ten championship against Ohio State, who ended up being a No. 2 seed in the South Region.
In Loyola’s first-round game against ACC Tournament champ Georgia Tech, the Ramblers closed as a 5.5-point favorite. The Yellow Jackets were without ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright, but Loyola was a three-point favorite before Wright was ruled out after a positive COVID-19 test.
Loyola’s Sweet 16 opponent is No. 12 Oregon State. They advanced by beating No. 5 Tennessee as an 8.5-point underdog and No. 4 Oklahoma State as a six-point underdog. Loyola is a seven-point favorite against Oregon State so the eight-seed Ramblers are around the same point spread as a five-seed and four-seed was against the Beavers in the first two rounds. That point spread looks even larger with a very low total of 125 for the first game Saturday of the Sweet 16.
Loyola is the only way I could look, but I’m not going to bet them against the spread in a game with such a low total and coming off a near perfect performance against Illinois. One approach if you want to bet the game is the Oregon State team total under 59.5 because I lean to Loyola and the under in this contest.
My stronger way to invest in the Ramblers is Loyola to win the Midwest Region at +170. If Loyola won and Syracuse pulled off an upset later that night, you could be getting the favorite in the Elite Eight at plus money to win the region. If Houston wins, the moneyline on Loyola beating them would be less than +170 so I want to lock in this advantageous number now.
No. 2 Houston is a 6.5-point favorite against No. 11 Syracuse. The line opened Houston -7 and unsurprisingly was bet down to -6 early in the week. Syracuse shot a combined 50 percent from three in wins over San Diego State and West Virginia, while Houston needed a late comeback to beat Rutgers. On Thursday, money came back in on the Cougars to move the line back to Houston -6.5.
The case for Syracuse is that they are a better NCAA Tournament team than they are in the regular season because the 2-3 zone they employ is tough to play against. The case for Houston is they are a more talented team and Syracuse’s outside shooting will eventually regress. I have no bet in this game, but will be rooting for the Orange if the Ramblers win earlier in the day.
One of the more prominent point-spread line moves throughout this week was Baylor going from -6 to -7.5 in their Sweet game against Villanova. I agree with the line move and if it somehow got back to -6.5, then Baylor would be a bet for me. Villanova was able to win two games last weekend without star guard Collin Gillespie, but beating Winthrop and North Texas was a very favorable path to get to this point. Baylor has a huge edge in guard play and will give a lot of trouble defensively to Villanova’s backcourt.
The total in this game has also been bet up from the mid 130s to the low 140s. That move makes sense because the game is played at Hinkle Fieldhouse, which is where Villanova played Big East foe Butler last month. It’s also is justifiable because Baylor has the best three-point shooting percentage in the country. With the point spread trending towards Baylor and total going up, Baylor team total over 74.5 could be the bet to exploit if you are looking for something in this one.
The other game in this region is a completely unexpected tilt between Oral Roberts and Arkansas. These two teams actually played on Dec. 20 and the Razorbacks overcame a 10-point halftime deficit to win by 11 points in Fayetteville. Coincidentally, the line for this game is Arkansas -11 with some -11.5 in a few spots.
The spread was Arkansas -19.5 in for their regular season meeting. A lot has changed since then, with Arkansas greatly improving throughout the season and Oral Roberts becoming the NCAA Tournament’s Cinderella team. This line still feels a little bit short given that Arkansas was favored by nine over a sneaky Colgate squad in the first round and Oral Roberts closed +15 in their first-round upset against an overrated Ohio State team. Oral Roberts has been a great story, but there’s no way I can bet on a team that finished fourth place in the Summit League at this stage of the NCAA Tournament. It’s either Arkansas or pass for me.
Sunday’s slate starts with No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga playing Creighton. Even though No. 5 Creighton is the second-highest seed left in this region, ahead of No. 6 USC and No. 7 Oregon, this is the most favorable matchup for Gonzaga and the point spread in a potential Elite Eight game will be less than the -13 that Gonzaga is currently favored by against Creighton.
Creighton barely survived in the first round against UC-Santa Barbara and took advantage of No. 13 seeded Ohio after the Bobcats had a program-defining win against Virginia. Creighton won’t be able to stop Gonzaga’s prolific offense.
The point spread is the great equalizer and at -13, there’s no value in betting Gonzaga. I would stay away from this game and if you are looking to fade Gonzaga, then the opportunity might come in the Elite Eight against Oregon or USC.
The last game of Sweet 16 action is between two Pac-12 teams that dominated in the second round on Monday. Oregon defeated Iowa by 15 as 4.5-point underdogs and USC throttled Kansas. Oregon’s win was the first game of the day and USC capped off the night, so if there’s any recency bias it would be towards the Trojans.
The line move has been interesting to watch this week, as USC got bet up from -1 to -2.5 on Tuesday morning. Some resistance soon came in on the Ducks, and we are now sitting at USC -1.5 and -2 as of this writing.
Oregon has been undervalued since early February after COVID-19 issues within the program caused them to play only one game from after the second weekend in January to early February. They closed the regular season winning 10 of their last 11 regular season games in a 30-day span. Their only loss in that stretch was a 72-58 defeat at USC where the Trojans took an early 15-0 lead and cruised to a win. With Oregon playing so many games in a tight window of time, I’ll give the Ducks a pass for one bad game there.
Now in an NCAA Tournament setting with time to prepare, I like Oregon +2.5 or better in this game. I’m hoping the number ticks back up as casual bettors remember what they saw from USC last when they played a near perfect game against an over-seeded Kansas team.
The side I like the most out of the eight games this weekend and a bet I have already made is Florida State +3 over Michigan. I hinted in my article last week that I would bet Florida State if this matchup ended up happening. The line is down to Michigan -2.5 after being down as high as -3.5 early in the week.
Florida State has size, depth and athleticism that can exploit Michigan without guard Isaiah Livers. The Seminoles have issues with turnovers, but that’s mitigated in this specific matchup against a Wolverines team that struggles forcing turnovers.
The other game in the region is Alabama as a 6.5-point favorite against UCLA. I will not have a bet on this game, especially after the Crimson Tide shot 16-for-33 from behind the arc in the second round against Maryland. I like this Alabama team a lot, but they are vulnerable if they struggle to hit outside shots.