Why NCAA second round usually returns to form

It’s been true since Al Maguire was talking about it with NBC cohorts Billy Packer and Dick Enberg back during the initial explosion of NCAA tournament coverage in the late 1970s. Teams that score surprising results in their Big Dance opener often have trouble matching the same level of performance and intensity the next time out. 

In short: upsets happen in the first round. Form is much more likely to hold in the second round. 

There are certainly a handful of exceptions every season. But, the general rule still rings true. As handicappers and bettors, you have to take that into account when trying to pick winners straight up and against the point spread Saturday and Sunday in the “Round of 32.” 

Which teams are most likely to fall back to earth this weekend when facing their second tournament challenge in three days?

  • Longshots from mid-major or smaller conferences that put everything they had into scoring a big upset. There’s just not time to refuel the tanks emotionally or physically. Hangover effects either show up immediately, or in the second half of game two when fatigue hits hardest. 
  • Undersized underdogs (or winners of low-spread coin flips) who happened to shoot lights out on three-pointers. It’s very difficult to do that two games in a row…particularly against a defense that’s now fully aware that they can’t let it happen. The phrase “live by the three, die by the three” is particularly appropriate in tournament basketball. When treys stop dropping, those teams are run out of the gym. 
  • Upstarts that rely on fast pace to disrupt opponents. Playing great twice in three days at a fast pace vs. talented opposition is REALLY hard. Once the legs go, jumpers come up short while talented opposing favorites can attack the rim more aggressively. 
  • Unheralded, off-the-radar programs led by one main star who carries the team on his shoulders. Catching an overconfident opponent flat-footed on a Thursday or Friday can earn big headlines.. The weekend opponent will be gang-guarding the guy with an “S” on his chest.  

Whether you’re talking about underdogs or favorites, it’s good to evaluate the quality of that first victory. Teams that coasted to victory playing their “normal” game are capable of going deep in the Dance. Those who needed to play over their heads to get a result are floating in a balloon that’s about to burst.

You’ve probably watched a lot of games already this week.  Be sure to read box scores too so you can look for statistical outliers that aren’t likely to hold up. Don’t expect a team that was 15 or more in free throw attempts to keep earning such friendly whistles. A mediocrity that advanced because an opponent self-destructed with turnovers may gag against quality guards. 

New round, new dynamics. Bet accordingly!

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