Jared Smith's NCAA Tournament preview: How to find betting value in the madness

Ochai Agbaji

My favorite week of the college basketball season has arrived. We will be treated to 52 games over the next 6 days before the NCAA Tournament field is trimmed to a Sweet 16 by Sunday. In terms of betting value, the tournament is ripe with opportunities. After several months of conference games and with an abundance of prior data to bank on, oddsmakers face an entirely different challenge this week.

“The early tournament matchups between two teams that have a large gap in strength of schedule make it more difficult to come up with an accurate line,” said WynnBet Senior Trader Mike Metzler.

“I think the most difficult part of setting tourney lines is trying to figure out how the different conferences will stack up against each other,” added PointsBet Trading Analyst Michael Korn.

Bettors should also be extra wary of bankroll management. With so many games in a short span, it can be easy to get carried away and make bad bets — like parlays that are longer than CVS receipts.

“Putting in a small lotto-type ticket can be fun, but doing some research and sticking to mostly straight bets will give you the best chance to be profitable,” added Metzler.

Here are some other things to keep in mind this week before filling out your bracket and placing your bets.

Seeds are meaningless

The only number that matters is the spread. For example, there are 3 lower-seeded teams favored this week over higher-seeded ones: #11 Michigan over #6 Colorado State, #10 Loyola-Chicago over #7 Ohio State, and #9 Memphis over #8 Boise State.

“While everyone will blindly take the 6 or 7 seed, you could have that 10 or 11 seed in the Sweet 16 and score some points,” said TwinSpires Director of Retail Sports Zachary Lucas.

Another prime example of this is most of the lines in the #4 vs #13 games sans Akron/UCLA. All of them are relatively short if you consider the difference in seeding. That usually is my indicator that the underdog is worth a look.

Rules to follow for picking a champion

Since KenPom’s efficiency ratings originated in 2002, the champion has never finished lower than 22nd in adjusted defense, so that’s a good place to start. There’s also never been a champion ranked outside the top 40 in adjusted offense.

Also, 16 of the last 18 champions have been ranked inside top 11 heading into the tourney. In case you were curious, both of the outliers were UConn — which was unranked in 2014 and 21st in 2011 when they made improbable runs to the title.

Based on those criteria, there are 6 teams that are a perfect match: Gonzaga, UCLA, Baylor, Arizona, Auburn, and Tennessee. Houston missed the cut by just 4 spots in the rankings but deserves consideration due to its strong metrics (top 15 in both adjusted offense and defense).

Kentucky, Villanova, Kansas, and Illinois would also be a match if you widened the sample size just a bit to include teams inside the top 30 of adjusted defense.

“Don’t try to get too cute with upsets and don’t be afraid to pick chalk,” Korn added. “More than 60% of the tournament winners since 1985 have been a #1 seed and more than 85% of the winners have been either a 1, 2, or 3 seed.”

Some other fascinating case studies include Texas, which has very solid grades (13th defense, 32nd offense) but is ranked just 25th in the polls. Arkansas meets the efficiency criteria on defense, but is fringe on offense and ranked just 17th in the polls.

Other mid-major honorable mentions include LoyolaChicago, 22nd in defense, 42nd in offense, but unranked in the polls. San Francisco is 19th in adjusted defense and just outside the top 40 in adjusted offense, but the Dons are also unranked and will likely be without their best player Yauhen Massalski, who was injured in the WCC Tournament.

Further down the list of contenders there are highly unbalanced teams like Texas Tech, San Diego St, LSU, Saint Mary’s, and Iowa State, who are all top 10 in adjusted defense but outside the top 60 in adjusted offense. On the other side, Iowa, Purdue, and Duke are all top 10 in adjusted offense but outside the top 40 in adjusted defense.

The one thing I’ve noticed with prior champions is balance on both ends of the floor, so it’s unlikely one of them will be able to stay consistent enough to cut down the nets. Your best bet is to pick one of the first 11 teams mentioned as the champion in your bracket.

Should you bet the futures market?

Short answer, no. At this stage of the season, the market value has mostly evaporated and your best option is to set up a money line rollover. More often than not you will get a better return in the end.

This strategy also allows you to play each game individually, offering more flexibility to throttle down your risk as things get deeper.

“I’d be looking now to find value on a game-by-game basis,” Lucas added.

Sleepers and busts

Lucas believes Memphis could be one of those Cinderella teams to watch, which would be a massive surprise considering the Tigers have a potential matchup with #1 seed Gonzaga looming in the round of 32.

“They’ve shown they have the talent, can play defense and can get hot at the right time,” Lucas added. “March Madness is such a small sample size of games, that all it takes is a Jalen Duren or DeAndre Williams to get hot for a few games.”

Other bookmakers agree that Gonzaga’s path to the Final Four might be a bit rocky when you consider the lack of adversity they have faced during the regular season.

“With a late-season loss to St. Mary’s and not many tests in the last couple months, I could see them getting tight in a dog fight with larger programs,” Metzler added.

Another sleeper to consider is Vermont, which opened as just a 6-point underdog against much higher-seeded Arkansas in the round of 64. One reason for the shorter than expected line could be the venue. The game is being played in Buffalo, which is about a 6-hour drive from campus in Burlington.

“The sharp money has driven the line down for the Catamounts’ game against Arkansas by a few points,” Metzler added.

The Catamounts are an experienced bunch with 5 seniors in the starting lineup. They also were very impressive down the stretch, winning their 3 America East Tourney games 39, 32, and 39 points.

Korn also believes Wisconsin could be susceptible to an early-round exit. The Badgers are dealing with injury concerns surrounding their best player Johnny Davis, who looked very limited in the Big Ten Tournament last week.

“As a 3 I think they were seeded higher than they deserved,” added Korn.

The thing Wisconsin has going for them is their first 2 games will be played in Milwaukee, a mere 90-minute drive from campus in Madison.

“These neutral site games are sometimes close to one of the teams playing which could provide that ‘home court’ advantage,” added Lucas. “Always double-check the location of the game being played.”

Who will cut down the nets?

I have Kansas beating Kentucky in the championship. The Jayhawks looked fantastic at the Big 12 Tournament last week and I think the return of Remy Martin is a big reason why.

Guard play is huge in March and if Martin back at a high level I they have the deepest backcourt in the country with All-American Ochai Agbaji leading the way. They also have experience and size up front. I don’t fully trust Bill Self, but the talent wins out for me here.

Kentucky is also poised to make a run with their ultra-talented backcourt and have the nation’s best overall player in Oscar Tshiebwe. I also have Arizona and Texas Tech in my Final Four.

Check back later this week as I reveal my best bets for the round of 64 and my entire bracket!

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