Expanding sports betting legalization has furthered gambling conversations but the NCAA tournament bracket has remained a staple for decades. Even before the landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling, the Big Dance annually generated action and excitement. Much like Super Bowl props, the bracket enables even casual fans to discuss a form of gambling.
Brackets are routinely busted, as handicapping the tournament is a different animal, particularly when you compare it with the most recent games. Schools are coming off conference tournaments, which involve familiar opponents and playing on consecutive days. However, the tourney creates foreign matchups and environments, lending itself to more unpredictable outcomes.
Plus, the playing field is becoming more level, as demonstrated by the betting odds. Since 2005, we have seen only three point spreads of at least 30 points. In the decade prior to that, there were 15 such spreads, including a 46-point line in 1999.
“College basketball is just so much more balanced now. There are more teams that can compete on a nightly basis,” Ed Salmons from the Westgate SuperBook told ESPN, speaking to the growing usage of the 3-pointer. “A lot of teams that didn’t make the tourney are more than capable of winning a couple games.”
Another indication is the advancement of lower seeds. A 15-seed has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past two tournaments, including Saint Peter’s last year reaching the Elite Eight. The Big Dance lends itself to Cinderella and money-line paydays, which translate to outlier betting behavior.
“The public will certainly embrace a few tournament underdogs. Once in a while the public will back a ‘dog in other sports but not like this. If you’re flipping channels during the regular season, you will stumble across Drake or Oral Roberts, so the public is more familiar with these lower-profile schools,” Salmons said.
Watching the opening weekend at a Vegas sportsbook is a rite of passage that every fan must experience at least once. I will do it this weekend for about the tenth time. And here are my top plays, based on intel from oddsmakers and sharp bettors, that I have bet:
Odds from Caesars Sportsbook unless otherwise noted.
West Virginia (-2) over Maryland — The Mountaineers laid an egg in the Big 12 tournament opener but they finished the regular season winning four of five with the lone loss coming by two points at Kansas. Meanwhile, Maryland was embarrassing on the road in conference play, only defeating lowly Minnesota. I also like WVU at 25-1 to win the region.
San Diego State (-5) over Charleston — It’s tough to lay this many points with a Mountain West team, considering the conference has lost nine straight NCAA tournament games. However, Charleston ranks only 73rd on KenPom and the Aztecs have an elite defense.
Arizona (-14) over Princeton — The Tigers’ tallest starter is 6-foot-8, while the Wildcats start two 7-footers. They should overwhelm Princeton, which is a bit worse than recent Ivy League teams that have gone dancing.
Arkansas (-2.5) over Illinois — Fading a quality coach like Brad Underwood can burn you but every other check mark goes to the Razorbacks, and they also have an elite coach in Eric Musselman. The Hogs blew double-digit leads in the SEC tourney but I imagine that will motivate them for this game. The Illini just aren’t that good.
Oral Roberts (+6) over Duke — The Blue Devils are a chic Final Four pick but let’s remember this current nine-game win streak has come in a weak ACC. The Golden Eagles ran the table in the Summit and had respectable losses at St. Mary’s and Utah State. This should come down to the wire, especially if Jon Scheyer does not get the same whistle as his predecessor.
Northwestern-Boise State under 128.5 — This is in contention with WVU for my top play. KenPom ranks these defenses in the top 15, while the Broncos (79th) and Wildcats (109th) have poor offensive rankings. Both teams run fairly methodical sets and each head coach will have his team buttoned up on defense.
Penn State (+3.5) over Texas A&M — This is a bad matchup for the Aggies. Buzz Williams packs the paint to allow 3-pointers, but no major conference team makes more 3s than the Nittany Lions and only Alabama takes more. Penn State can spread the floor with shooters and essentially play with any team. I am also sprinkling a little on the team at 35-1 to win the region.
UNC Asheville (+17.5) over UCLA — I expect the Bruins to be flat playing without the injured Jaylen Clark and possibly big man Adem Bona for the opener. The Bulldogs are nothing special but I think they can hang around. I would split this wager and play a half-unit on the first-half line +10.