It would be no big surprise if freshman phenom Cade Cunningham carried Oklahoma State to the Final Four. It’s also possible the Cowboys could get stunned in the first round of the NCAA tournament this week.
When filling out brackets for the office pool, most people prefer to pick favorites to advance. It’s easy and safe to forecast the obvious. No. 1 seeds Gonzaga, Baylor and Illinois appear especially strong.
But when betting on tournament games, beware of the big dogs, especially in the early rounds. Chaos is waiting around the corner, and upsets always happen.
“I lean to dogs, I lean to taking points, and that’s the way I play the tournament,” said Richie Baccellieri, a professional bettor and veteran oddsmaker.
The point spread is the equalizer, and, now more than ever, the line is blurred between power-conference favorites and small-conference underdogs.
“The dogs are much more capable now because of the balance in college basketball,” VSiN oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo said. “There’s more parity, so there’s value with the dogs.”
As recently as a week ago, some sportsbooks offered Oklahoma State at odds as high as 75-1 to win the NCAA championship. No longer considered long shots, the Cowboys are currently getting odds ranging from 16-1 at BetMGM to 40-1 at Circa Sports. Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and the Cowboys look a lot like the Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse team that made a surprising title run in 2003.
Oklahoma State, the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Region, opened as a 9.5-point favorite over 13th-seeded Liberty in Friday’s first round. The line dipped to 7.5 on Monday with a wave of sharp action. The Flames, 23-5 and champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, have the potential to heat up from 3-point range and throw a scare into the Cowboys.
When the first-round matchups were announced Sunday, Baccellieri, Magliulo and Jimmy Vaccaro huddled with South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews to make opening lines. Vaccaro said the amount wagered at the counter and on the phones was “well into six figures” just in the first hour. Almost all that action came from sharps.
“We are going to have the biggest Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday that we’ve ever had, and I truly believe that,” Vaccaro said. “Friday and Saturday will be like Super Bowl Sunday.”
In the betting world, the sharps play the role of Joey Chestnut and quickly eat line value on the dogs. When the betting public starts firing on the Friday games, expect the favorites to draw most of the play, so many numbers will move again later in the week.
Look at Liberty and nine other hot dogs to watch in the first round.
Winthrop (+ 6.5) vs. Villanova: It’s no secret that 12th-seeded teams tend to topple No. 5 seeds. This will be a popular upset pick, maybe too popular. The line moved immediately after the Wildcats opened -7.5. Villanova is vulnerable without injured senior guard Collin Gillespie. The Eagles, 23-1 and champions of the Big South, are loaded with offensive firepower.
“Winthrop might be a dog that gets a lot of play,” Andrews said. “Some of the power-conference teams are not as good as their reputations, and that’s why we see some of the 5-12 upsets.”
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, 12th seeds have won 50 of 140 matchups against fifth seeds. Since 2000, No. 12 seeds are 45-34-1 against the spread in this round. In 2019, three of the four 12th seeds advanced.
Colgate (+ 9) vs. Arkansas: The 14th-seeded Raiders of the Patriot League have played only 15 games and won 14 times. This hot dog is led by senior guard Jordan Burns, who’s scoring 17 points per game and shooting 41.5% on 3-pointers. Six of the team’s top eight scorers shoot better than 36% from 3-point range. Colgate was getting 10 points on the opening line.
Oral Roberts (+ 17) vs. Ohio State: Sophomore guard Max Abmas is the nation’s leading scorer at 24.2 ppg, and junior forward Kevin Obanor is another lethal scorer at 18.2 ppg for the 15th-seeded Golden Eagles. Abmas scored 33 points in an 83-78 loss at Oklahoma State in December. The Buckeyes, who fell to Illinois in overtime of the Big Ten tournament title game, have defensive weaknesses and problems protecting leads. Oral Roberts shoots 38.8% from the 3-point line and scores 41% of its points on 3s. Andrews made this line Ohio State -22. Baccellieri, who made the line 14.5, said, “Oral Roberts is a very good Summit League team.”
UC Santa Barbara (+ 7) vs. Creighton: The Bluejays, blown out by Georgetown in the Big East tournament title game, opened as 8-point favorites over UCSB. The Gauchos, a dangerous 12th seed from the Big West, are 22-4 overall and 18-1 since Jan. 1. Any team that has lost only once in 2½ months and is getting a decent number of points will be attractive to sharps. UCSB has a balanced offensive attack led by point guard JaQuori McLaughlin and 6-foot-9 forward Amadou Sow.
Ohio (+ 7.5) vs. Virginia: The South Point opening line of Virginia -12 triggered a feeding frenzy among sharps looking to fade the favorite mostly because of COVID-19 issues. The Cavaliers dropped out of the ACC tournament and are not expected to travel to Indianapolis until Thursday or Friday after limited practice time. Bobcats guard Jason Preston is an NBA prospect who poured in 31 points in a 77-75 loss at Illinois in late November. Smell an upset?
Eastern Washington (+ 10.5) vs. Kansas: Similar to Virginia, the Jayhawks withdrew from the Big 12 tournament because of COVID issues. What’s different is that Kansas appears to be in the clear, and coach Bill Self expects to have almost all his key players available. The Eagles of the Big Sky Conference spread the floor with 3-point marksmen and have a low-post star in 6-foot-9 forward Tanner Groves.
Grand Canyon (+ 15) vs. Iowa: Bryce Drew is an NCAA tournament legend from his days as a shooting star for Valparaiso in the late 1990s. He coached the 15th-seeded Antelopes to the Western Athletic Conference championship with help from 7-foot Asbjorn Midtgaard, who can defend the rim against Hawkeyes star Luka Garza.
Abilene Christian (+ 9) vs. Texas: The Longhorns are my pick to win it all, but that could turn into a big embarrassment if they go down in the first round. The Wildcats, who won the Southland Conference tournament title game by 34 points, are relentless defensively and hit the 3-ball at a high percentage. In a 51-44 loss at Texas Tech in December, Abilene forced the Red Raiders into 16 turnovers and 2-for-15 shooting from 3-point range. The Wildcats have a 7-footer, Kolton Kohl, who can match up with the Longhorns’ big guys. Texas coach Shaka Smart, and those of us who have his team advancing deep in the bracket, could be sweating this one out.
Iona (+ 17) vs. Alabama: Why not bet on Rick Pitino? The Gaels might not win, but a coach who knows all about March magic is getting a lot of points. Senior guard Isaiah Ross (18.4 ppg) leads a veteran Iona team. The Crimson Tide expended a lot of energy to win the SEC tournament.
Crazier things have happened in the first round. The possibilities are exciting — and cashing tickets is what it’s all about this weekend — yet the reality is almost all these dogs are likely to be returning home by the end of the second round.