The first NCAA tournament committee rankings were released last weekend as we move quickly toward Selection Sunday. Fans and experts alike anticipate that moment each year as they look more closely at how the brackets will shake out. But bettors generally should ignore rankings of these types, as teams’ true strengths and capabilities of winning a national championship are better reflected in the title odds offered by sportsbooks or in the strength ratings of people like me, who analyze key data points daily.
Too often, simply wins and losses go into determining committee rankings. The quality of wins is minimized somewhat, as are the effects of rigorous schedules, injuries and the impact of recent play. For instance, San Diego State (24-0) is shown as a would-be top seed. But my three sets of ratings show the Aztecs as no better than the nation’s seventh-best team, and when using the three sets of ratings combined, SDSU is about the 10th-best team in the country. The sportsbooks, meanwhile, list the Aztecs at 20-1 to win the title, ranking behind nine teams. Baylor shows similar characteristics of being overrated by the committee in its relationship to the strength ratings and title odds. On the other hand, Michigan State is viewed far more favorably by the experts in the betting markets when compared with the committee’s thoughts.
The chart nearby shows the top 16 teams in the country as released Saturday by the NCAA tournament committee. Along with these teams’ rankings and records, I have listed their current South Point title odds and my current Power Ratings, Effective Strength Ratings and Bettors Ratings. These are the same numbers that go into projecting my daily game-by-game strength ratings shown in “Point Spread Weekly” and on VSiN.com. They are updated daily and factor in schedule strength, weighted quality of wins/losses, injury adjustments and momentum. You will see that the Strength Ratings I offer more closely reflect the current odds at the sportsbooks than the committee’s rankings. This is no accident, and having served in the betting industry as a consultant on oddsmaking, the logic I use is best suited for behind the counter.
Here are a few observations from a betting perspective:
— Michigan State would figure to be the most undervalued team in the country. Having not even landed in the AP poll this week, the Spartans’ tournament potential is clearly being overlooked. They are No. 16 in the tournament committee’s numbers as well, meaning they would be a tough out for the overall No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16. Coach Tom Izzo’s team was looked at as one of the top title contenders at the outset of the season. The Spartans have battled injuries and a brutal Big Ten schedule, and several close losses are affecting their resume. But Izzo always has his team ready come March, and with a floor general like PG Cassius Winston leading the charge, this to me is the best title wager at 16/1.
— Baylor sits as the top overall seed and is riding a 21-game winning streak, yet my numbers and the opinions of those setting the odds don’t view the Bears as favorably. In fact, they aren’t even the best team in their conference in that regard. This team doesn’t really have a star or a point guard who seems capable of leading a title run. Their strengths don’t match up well with those of recent champions either. We’ll watch what the rest of the regular season brings, but at this point, I need to see a lot more to believe Baylor has what it takes to cut down the nets this season.
— Though it’s generally believed that the blue bloods are having down seasons, Kansas and Duke seem to be putting things together at the right time to make deep runs in March. The Jayhawks are ranked No. 1 in my current Effective Strength Ratings, and the Blue Devils are No. 3. These are always very important numbers in terms of capability of reaching the Final Four, and in my recurring piece that runs each year for the tournament, I cut the rating at Top 6 as having the best shot at March success.
— Other teams that rank in that Top 6 category for Effective Strength are Gonzaga (No. 2), Michigan State (No. 4), West Virginia (No. 5) and Baylor (No. 6). Gonzaga is a legitimate title contender, and the Mountaineers could be a true surprise team at 20/1 odds. The Mountaineers’ style of play is very tough to deal with if you haven’t seen it before. West Virginia doesn’t boast a true star, but Bob Huggins’ squad gets after you like no other team. With a game against Kansas on Wednesday night and two left with Baylor, this might be the ideal time to grab Huggins’ team at 20/1 before the odds move.
— Some contenders not on the committee’s ranking list boast top-16 strength ratings, according to my numbers. Kentucky is No. 8 on my Bettors Ratings, meaning the betting markets generally see the Wildcats as a top-10 team yet, making them dangerously underrated. Texas Tech is ranked No. 7 in BR and boasts my 15th-best Power Rating. Purdue is 14th in PR, 15th in ES and sixth in BR, a quality resume indeed. Penn State (13th PR, 14th ES) also looks undervalued. Two teams whose stats look better than their perceptions are BYU and Arizona. Neither team is ranked in the AP Top 25, but the Wildcats boast my 11th-best Effective Strength Rating, and the Cougars are 13th. These two teams are very capable of playing into the tournament’s second weekend.
See charts in current issue of Point Spread Weekly.