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A farewell to the XFL season

What a difference a week makes.

Just seven days ago, our biggest worry at the Tuley’s Takes home office was what it would be like to handicap NCAA tournament games played without fans. The coronavirus looked like an international crisis that was “over there” and would not affect our lives in the U.S., especially our preferred activity of sports betting.

That all changed, of course, when news broke Wednesday night that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the NBA was suspending its regular season at the end of the night. The NHL did the same the next morning, and other sports followed, with the biggest news coming Thursday afternoon when the NCAA tournament was canceled.

The only thing to compare this with in my lifetime was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. But in that case the sports world stopped playing for only about a week, while this is expected to last at least 2 1/2 months. June is looking like the earliest possible time for the NBA and NHL to resume, possibly skipping ahead to the playoffs, and for MLB to start an abbreviated season. The Masters has also been postponed, and the Kentucky Derby, traditionally the first Saturday in May, is now slated for the first Saturday in September.

My first bit of advice is not to just bet something because it’s the only game going. A lot of people have been saying things like, “I need to learn about rugby, Russian hockey, Australian rules football or (fill in the blank).” There’s also been talk about people betting on darts and chess. I understand the frustration, especially since we should be having one of our busiest weeks of the year with the start of March Madness, and I’m as guilty as anyone in joking about needing action or making degenerate bets. But this is the time to show discipline and resist bets in which you have no chance at an advantage. Heck, it’s hard enough to win betting football, basketball and all the sports we’re experts at, right?

Of course, if you are so inclined to bet on Aussie football, VSiN’s Ron Flatter has a piece in this issue of “Point Spread Weekly.”

Tuley’s Takes on NFL

The NFL draft festivities in Las Vegas have been canceled, though the draft itself will go on in televised form April 23-25. But the silver lining is that the NFL reached a collective bargaining agreement, and we’ve had a slew of free-agent signings and trades this week to discuss and put into sports betting perspective.

We’re still waiting to see where Tom Brady lands, among other top free agents, but the first big trade came with the Houston Texans sending wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals for running back David Johnson. That leads me to one bet I believe worth making. I like the Cardinals with their big three of quarterback Kyler Murray, running back Kenyan Drake (franchised-tagged with the pending trade of Johnson) and Hopkins as coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense can’t help but improve. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Cardinals were still a relatively high 28/1 to win the NFC at William Hill. I think that’s worth a play.

For those wondering about my other NFL futures, earlier this year in “Point Spread Weekly” I gave out the Tennessee Titans as my top value team in the AFC. They just re-signed QB Ryan Tannehill and franchised stud RB Derrick Henry, and they’re still 17/1 to win the AFC at William Hill and 35/1 to win the Super Bowl. My previous top value play in the NFC was the Falcons, currently 30/1 to win the conference at William Hill and 60/1 to win the Super Bowl.

We’re sure to be breaking down a lot more of the NFL offseason moves before and after the draft. In the meantime, my other advice would be to try to get out ahead of the signings of Brady, Philip Rivers and others if you think you know where they’re headed. The odds on those teams are sure to drop once the news hits.

Tuley’s Take on XFL

We never thought we’d be doing an XFL recap so early. When the league kicked off in February, most people expected it to succeed better than the Alliance of American Football, which folded after eight weeks last year. Yet here we are with the XFL suspending operations after five weeks, through no fault of its own.

I wouldn’t call the XFL an unqualified success, as ratings dropped and bookmakers never raved about the handle they received. But the consensus is it was a welcome addition to the betting menu each Saturday and Sunday along with the full slates of college and pro basketball and hockey. It was nice to have another option for those going through football withdrawal after the Super Bowl. Matthew Chaprales, head of content at PointsBet, said the handle was similar to an NBA game, with a boost in handle for games involving the New York Guardians due to their huge population base.

The season ended with just 20 games played over five weeks. Parity was prevalent, as favorites went 12-8 straight up (60%) while underdogs were also 12-8 against the spread. Parity was also shown in the fact that even though the Houston Roughnecks were the dominant team at 5-0, they were only 2-3 ATS and failed to cover the big spreads the market set for them.

Home-field advantage was strong, especially in the early weeks, as home teams finished 14-6 SU and 12-8 ATS. The subset of home dogs was even stronger at 6-4 SU and 7-3 ATS.

But the biggest gambling story of the XFL was the Over/Unders, as Unders finished 12-8. The league was hyped as being a wide-open brand of football with rules geared to aid the offenses, mostly offensive-minded coaches, and referees tending to let the players play. But the fireworks rarely happened until the very last game, when the Los Angeles Wildcats beat the Tampa Bay Vipers 41-34 in a shootout March 8. (Man, doesn’t that feel like a lifetime ago, even though it’s just been a week and a half?)

In Week 1, Circa Sports in downtown Las Vegas opened all four games with Over/Unders of 40.5. The market immediately thought those were too low and bet up the Week 1 totals to an average of 52, with Unders going 3-1 in the opening week. The totals slowly decreased in the ensuing weeks, though Unders still went 3-1 in three of the first four weeks with a 2-2 split in Week 3. They were 11-5 before Week 5, when totals averaged 41.5 and resulted in the first winning week for Overs at 3-1. In fact, it’s ironic that if the market had just gone with a total of 40.5 on all games, the record would have split 10-10. The lesson is to be skeptical of the hype the next time a new sport or variation of an existing sport promises high-scoring action.

The XFL, in its announcement ending this year’s season, stated: “The XFL is committed to playing a full season in 2021 and future years.” We’ll see if that indeed happens.

This gives us the opportunity to reset the season and look at golfers who are on upward trends and those who have been disappointments.

 

Great Form and Upward Trenders

 

Rory McIlroy

The world No. 1 has yet to win in 2020, but he has seven consecutive top-5 finishes dating to the Zozo Championship in late October and including a win the next week in China at the WGC: HSBC Champions. McIlroy also won the Tour Championship just 10 weeks earlier and tied for second the next week, losing in a five-way playoff at the Omega European Masters. McIlroy also tops the PGA Tour in Scoring Average (68.44), Scrambling (70.4%) and Round 1 Scoring Average (67.50). He also ranks second in SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 2.40) and Driving Distance (320.2) and third in SG: Approach (+ 1.22). The one hiccup has been his recent performances on Sundays. McIlroy has been averaging 70.17 in Round 4 Scoring Average, ranking just 79th. The top-ranked player in the world will be the betting favorite every week he tees it up, and eventually he is going to put it all together and win a big event. The Masters is the one major that keeps him from completing the Grand Slam. The last time a major PGA Tour event was held at TPC Harding Park, this year’s PGA Championship host, was the 2015 WGC Match Play — which McIlroy won.

 

Bryson DeChambeau

Winless in 2020, DeChambeau is likely to find himself in the winner’s circle sooner rather than later. He came into The Players with three consecutive top-5 finishes — T5 at the Genesis Invitational, second at the WGC Mexico and fourth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. DeChambeau’s recent emphasis and work on his length off the tee has paid off, as he ranks first on tour in Driving Distance (321.3) and third in SG: Off The Tee (+ 1.009). He also ranks fifth in Scoring Average (69.27). He hasn’t won since January 2019 at the Dubai Desert Classic on the European Tour, but he won four times in five months in 2018 at the Memorial, Northern Trust, Dell Technologies Championship and Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.

 

Max Homa

Homa was a PGA Tour winner in May as a 300/1 long shot at the Wells Fargo Championship. He concluded 2019 as the No. 130-ranked player in the world but has surged up the rankings to No. 71. Homa garnered three top-10s on the West Coast swing (T5 Genesis Invitational, T6 Waste Management Phoenix Open, T9 Farmers Insurance Open) and tied for fifth at the Dunlop Phoenix on the Japan Golf Tour in November. Homa has made 10 straight cuts worldwide since October’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. He is in both the Masters and PGA fields but needs to be in the OWGR top 60 to make the U.S. Open.

 

Tyrrell Hatton

Hatton has won twice in the last four months with victories at the Turkish Airlines Open and his first PGA Tour win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. This is an even more impressive feat considering he was out three of those four months recovering from wrist surgery. Hatton leads the PGA Tour in a wide variety of categories, including SG: Approach The Green (+ 1.42), SG: Tee-To-Green (+ 2.61) and Total Strokes Gained (+ 3.08). He is also on the outside looking in for a spot in the Olympics behind fellow Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Justin Rose but is closing in if he continues this great form.

 

Adam Scott

Scott has won two of his last four worldwide starts. He posted a victory in December in his homeland with the Australian PGA Championship. He followed that with a triumph in his first start of 2020 at the Genesis Invitational. He has moved back into the OWGR top 10 for the first time since 2016. Scott won the Masters in 2013 and has been moved down to 30/1 to win a second green jacket.

 

Webb Simpson

Simpson hasn’t missed a cut in over a year, last missing at the 2019 Valspar Championship. In that period he has a win at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, four seconds and a third. He also posted his first top-5 at a major championship since his victory at the 2012 U.S. Open when he tied for fifth at last year’s Masters. He looks to have the confidence and form to win a major for the first time in eight years. Furthermore, with Dustin Johnson forgoing a trip to the Olympics, Simpson is in the last spot for Team USA. Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Patrick Cantlay hold the other three spots, while Simpson is fighting to stay ahead of Patrick Reed, Tiger Woods, Xander Schauffele, Bryson DeChambeau and Tony Finau.

 

Sungjae Im

Im is the modern-day Vijay Singh in that he never seems to take a week off. No one has better form in his last two events. Im won his first PGA Tour event in early March at the Honda Classic and followed with a third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. He is the current FedEx Cup points leader and No. 2 on the PGA Tour money list. Im is only 21 but seems like a veteran because he plays so frequently. In 2018 he played 34 events on the Korn Ferry and PGA tours. Last season he played 35 events, and he has already played eight this season. Then again, you probably don’t want to take many weeks off when you are playing as well as he is.

 

Disappointments and Downward Trenders

 

Brooks Koepka

It seems absurd to put the world No. 3 on this list, considering he has won three of the last seven majors and is the defending PGA champion. Koepka says he has recovered from a left patella injury suffered in October, but he has looked out of form to start 2020. While he has made four of five cuts this season, Koepka’s best finish is a T17 in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps this is just rust or he’s still bothered by the injury, but Koepka is nowhere near last year’s form. In 2019 he rated fourth in Scoring Average (69.39), and this year he ranks 182nd (71.79). It’s tough to bet him now because he hasn’t drifted upward enough in the market, as he is about 15/1 to win the next two majors. This unexpected break in the schedule could be good for him, assuming he needs more time to recover from his injury.

 

Dustin Johnson

Johnson is still ranked No. 5 in the world, so he’s not too far gone. He won twice last year in Saudi Arabia and at the WGC Mexico. He also was the runner-up at the first two majors but never contended again, save for a runner-up in Saudi Arabia in February. Like Koepka, Johnson had knee surgery in September before returning to play in the Presidents Cup in December. He was in contention briefly Sunday at Riviera but started uncharacteristically pulling wedge shots in the final round at a course where he had won and had two runners-up. He’s shown a bit more than Koepka but has started more slowly than usual.

 

Rickie Fowler

Fowler’s No. 27 world ranking is his lowest since 2013. This looked like a year when he would take his next step and finally nab that elusive first major. It still could be, but his play has lacked consistency, and he’s not regularly contending. His T5 finish in a 34-player field at Kapalua to begin 2020 was his first top-5 since the Wells Fargo in May. Fowler also missed the cut at the Honda Classic, where he tied Koepka for second a year ago.

 

Jordan Spieth

Spieth has struggled with his ball striking for a couple of years, but his acumen on the greens has always seemed to bail him out. Last year he finished second on the PGA Tour in SG: Putting (+ 0.862) and first in Putting Average (1.69). This year he ranks 90th in SG: Putting (+ 0.14). He is losing strokes everywhere on the course except on or around the greens. Spieth has not won in over 2 1/2 years. His final-round 67 in difficult, windy conditions at Pebble Beach led to a T9 finish, and that looked like it could be a potential buy sign. But subsequent finishes of T59 at Riviera and T58 at WGC Mexico shot down those encouraging indicators.

 

Jason Day

Like Spieth, Day has fallen out of the top 50 in the OWGR. He continues to be plagued by injuries and withdrew midway through the Arnold Palmer Invitational a couple of weeks ago. Day finished fourth at Pebble Beach, but that was his first top-10 since the Travelers in June. Some analysts believe his back problems are due to his attempt to shorten his swing even more. Day was the No. 1 player in the world at the end of 2016 but has been nowhere near that form lately.

 

Matt Wallace

Wallace was a trendy pick to be a breakout star last year after he nabbed three European Tour wins in 2018. He showed some glimpses in the early part of last season with a second in Dubai followed by a T2 at the British Masters and a T3 at the PGA Championship. He then had a couple of thirds in Europe but hasn’t shown much since. Wallace hasn’t played poorly but has been disappointing off his 2018 career year with only eight top-10 finishes in 35 events. His world ranking reached a career-high 23rd last summer but now is just outside the top 40.

 

Francesco Molinari

Molinari had been a good player for many years but broke through in 2018 by winning the British Open, his first major triumph. He capped the year by going 5-0 at the Ryder Cup in Paris, leading Europe to victory. The Italian looked like he was going to build on that success in 2019 with a win at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a third at the WGC Dell Match Play. He was leading the Masters in the final round before his tee shot on the 12th went into Rae’s Creek and led to a double bogey. Ever since that poor shot, he has failed to post a top-10 finish. He changed caddies this year, going with Justin Rose’s old bag man Mark Fulcher, and has been dealing with a back injury that led him to withdraw at Bay Hill, where he was defending champ.

 

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