Against long odds, Oregon State senior guard Ethan Thompson might be the most unlikely star of this NCAA tournament. Thompson is a talented player, to be sure, but his team faced a nearly hopeless predicament two weeks ago.
The Beavers finished the regular season sixth in the Pac-12, which received a minuscule amount of media hype this season yet has emerged from a five-day whirlwind as the most impressive conference in college basketball.
“I don’t know how this all came together for this Oregon State team all of a sudden,” The Gold Sheet handicapper Bruce Marshall said.
With two minutes left in the first half of their Pac-12 tournament opener March 11, the Beavers trailed UCLA by 16 points. Oregon State rallied to beat the Bruins in overtime as Thompson scored all 18 of his points after halftime.
The Beavers, needing to win three games in three days just to get into the NCAA field, went on to upset Oregon and Colorado to claim the conference tournament title in Las Vegas. As the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region, Oregon State stunned fifth-seeded Tennessee and fourth-seeded Oklahoma State to reach the Sweet 16.
Thompson scored 26 points Sunday to outduel freshman phenom Cade Cunningham, the projected No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, in the Beavers’ 80-70 victory over the Cowboys. Fittingly, the game was played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, where the 1986 movie “Hoosiers” featured the small-town Hickory Huskers’ underdog story.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the odds against Oregon State winning five consecutive games in elimination settings — with less than a 30% win probability in each game — was about 2800-1.
Oregon State and three other double-digit seeds — Oral Roberts, Syracuse and UCLA — advanced past the second round. The Beavers and Bruins join Oregon and USC to give the Pac-12 four teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001. Aside from Bill Walton, no one could see this coming.
“Some surprise teams in there make it more interesting,” Marshall said. “This has been absolutely nuts.”
This long-shot theme truly is nuts. In early January, the Westgate SuperBook offered sky-high NCAA title odds on the double-digit seeds still standing — Oral Roberts 5000-1, Oregon State 1000-1, Syracuse 200-1 and UCLA 100-1. This is something that never happens in college football, and this is why college basketball futures are worth your money and time.
Because of the betting public’s tendency to play favorites, upsets mean positive results for bookmakers. Underdogs went 24-15 against the spread with 16 outright upsets in the Friday, Saturday and Sunday games.
The NCAA tournament was canceled last year because of COVID-19, but the wagering handle this March is making up for lost time.
“People were yearning for this tournament to be back,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said. “I thought the handle would be great, and it is off the hook. Our win percentage has been good too.”
The dog trend finally stopped Monday. After Oregon upset Iowa in the day’s first game, favorites finished on a 7-0 ATS roll. Underdogs still hold a 25-22 lead in the ATS standings.
“The books have no complaints,” William Hill sportsbook director Nick Bogdanovich said. “It’s a ton of business. The numbers are staggering. I’m just talking about Nevada, but the numbers are strong throughout all of the states.”
The surprisingly weak Big Ten is on the brink of going bust. The conference sent nine teams to the tournament and only Michigan, the No. 1 seed in the East, has survived. The Wolverines are lucky to be alive after losing senior guard Isaiah Livers, the team’s second-leading scorer, to a foot injury two weeks ago. Illinois, the top seed in the Midwest, was red hot and a popular Final Four pick before getting blown out Sunday by No. 8 Loyola-Chicago.
Ohio State, a No. 2 seed, opened as a 17-point favorite over Oral Roberts, which shocked the Buckeyes in the first round before upsetting Florida in the second round. The 15th-seeded Golden Eagles of the Summit League are led by sophomore guard Max Abmas, the nation’s leading scorer who has 55 points in two tournament games.
“Our biggest one-game loss was Oral Roberts beating Florida,” Avello said. “Our biggest one-game win was Illinois going down. It’s shocking to me the Big Ten is just blowing up.”
Amid the bracket-busting hysteria, top seeds Gonzaga and Baylor have advanced with ease. BetMGM opened the Zags as 13.5-point favorites against Creighton in the regional semifinals. The Bears, the last team standing from seven Big 12 squads in the field, are laying 6.5 points against Villanova. The Wildcats, who caught a break with the draw, are on borrowed time without injured senior point guard Collin Gillespie.
BetMGM lists Gonzaga as the NCAA championship favorite at 3-2 odds, followed by Baylor (9-2), Michigan (9-1) and Houston (9-1). The Cougars are 6-point favorites against Syracuse in the next round, with the Orange looking like a live dog getting 5-1 odds to win the Midwest Region and 30-1 odds to win it all.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has done it again. After debates about his team deserving an at-large berth, the Orange reached the Sweet 16, this time riding the sweet shooting of his son, Buddy, who totaled 55 points in victories over San Diego State and West Virginia.
“Boeheim looks like a genius this time of year when his teams peak,” Bogdanovich said.
Pac-12 teams have posted a 9-1 record in the tournament, led by UCLA’s three wins. The Bruins carried a four-game losing streak into the NCAA tournament.
One team from the Pac-12 is guaranteed to reach the Elite Eight. As a result of either laziness or an oversight by the NCAA selection committee, the league’s top two teams, Oregon and USC, were placed in the same region and meet in the next round. The Trojans opened as 1-point favorites.
“I think USC would have a little better shot to knock off Gonzaga,” Marshall said after the Trojans handed Kansas a 34-point beating Monday night.
The most inspiring stories of March are written by long-shot teams. Loyola was a 200-1 shot in early January. Oregon State lost home games to Portland and Wyoming in December.
“I really think the Loyola-Oregon State winner is going to get to the Final Four,” Marshall said.
The Ramblers are 6.5-point favorites against the Beavers, who overcame long odds to get to this point and now must deal with Loyola and its spiritual leader, the 101-year-old Sister Jean.