One event that always lives up to the hype is the NCAA Tournament. College basketball in March is the best version of reality TV, in part because of the overhyped teams that get eliminated early. The biggest loser this month is Kentucky coach John Calipari.
Countless brackets were busted when the Wildcats, 18-point favorites, were shot down by 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s in the first round. It was hard to believe the blue-collar Peacocks of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference could upset blue-blooded Kentucky. It was an inexcusable collapse by Calipari.
“Usually, any time a big favorite went down it was good for us,” DraftKings sportsbook director John Avello said.
Kentucky’s quick exit was the most embarrassing result of a train-wreck week for the SEC, which lost five of its six teams, including Auburn and Tennessee. Seven of the nine Big Ten teams are done. Top-seeded Baylor from the Big 12 faced a 25-point deficit as last year’s NCAA champion failed to survive the second round.
With 68 teams and 67 games in three weeks, the NCAA Tournament is a bigger betting event than the Super Bowl. There are always some blowouts and mismatches, but there are more thrillers and upsets. Overflow crowds in Las Vegas sportsbooks just witnessed the most entertaining four days on the sports calendar.
“It’s the busiest week I’ve ever seen,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. “It’s insane.”
Favorites won 33 of the 48 games in the first and second rounds, yet underdogs went 27-21 against the spread. When the dogs bark, the books typically profit on the bottom line. Vaccaro said his book held 8 percent of the action.
“For us, it was phenomenal,” Avello said. “It was four days of monster handle and we won every day.”
On the Circa Sports odds board, Gonzaga remains the NCAA title favorite at + 233, followed by Kansas (+ 485), Arizona (+ 635), Purdue (+ 750), Houston (+ 850), UCLA (12-1), Villanova (14-1), Texas Tech (17-1), Duke (18-1) and North Carolina (24-1) to round out the top 10.
So we move on, without Baylor and Calipari, from a field of 68 to the Sweet 16. Here’s a breakdown of the matchups for Thursday and Friday:
When the Bulldogs faced a 10-point halftime deficit against Memphis in the second round, junior forward Drew Timme saved their season. Timme scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half and finished with 14 rebounds. The Tigers were a tough matchup because of their NBA-caliber athletes and size. The Razorbacks are not as big, and their shooting is inconsistent — 10-for-37 (27 percent) from 3-point range in two tournament games. Arkansas narrowly survived against Vermont then beat New Mexico State 53-48 in the second round while outscoring the Aggies 22-6 on free throws.
Prediction: Gonzaga is not as great as it was last year, so Arkansas is tempting as a 9-point dog, but this is a pass for me. The Zags showed something by escaping the Memphis scare, and the last team standing from the SEC is about to hit a dead end.
The Wildcats could run into trouble with a thin bench and smaller front line. Villanova coach Jay Wright is basically using only six players. His ace is senior guard Collin Gillespie, who made 2 of 9 3s and had 20 points in a 71-61 second-round victory over Ohio State. Gillespie must shoot it better against the Wolverines, who used a matchup zone to help close out their upset of Tennessee. Michigan has a size advantage and needs a dominant performance from 7-foot-1 Hunter Dickinson to advance.
Prediction: Michigan + 5 is my play in a game that should go to the wire. Wolverines coach Juwan Howard has a major asset in assistant Phil Martelli, the former Saint Joseph’s coach who knows how to game plan against Villanova.
The Blue Devils are surprisingly 1-point dogs despite featuring five players projected to be NBA first-round picks. Mark Adams, the Red Raiders’ first-year coach, has a shot to end Mike Krzyzewski’s career. Duke is not good at defending the 3-point line, but Texas Tech is not a lethal perimeter-shooting team and does not have as many scorers. In a contrasting-styles matchup, Tech will try to win with defense and toughness.
Prediction: Pass. The wise plan of attack is to live bet this game and wait for a better line on the side you prefer. If Paolo Banchero is the best player on the floor, the Blue Devils will probably win. I’m resisting the urge to bet on Tech because it feels like a Duke-Gonzaga rematch is in the script.
Like him or not, Kelvin Sampson is a sharp coach and gives the Cougars a slight edge in that category. Houston plays suffocating defense yet struggles with its half-court offense. Arizona’s deep and tall front line is its obvious advantage, and Bennedict Mathurin, who had 30 points in a second-round overtime victory over TCU, might be the best shooting guard in the nation. “We’re starting to see sharp guys come in on Houston,” Westgate SuperBook director John Murray said.
Prediction: This is a lean to the Wildcats -1.5, but I’m already invested in the favorite with futures tickets on Arizona at 30-1 and 40-1.
This is a true David vs. Goliath game, with the giants being the Boilermakers’ 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and 6-foot-10 Trevion Williams. Purdue’s style of play, ignited by lighting-fast scoring guard Jaden Ivey, forces opponents to foul a lot and led to a + 47 advantage in made free throws in the first two rounds.
Prediction: I’ll play the Peacocks + 12.5. The Philadelphia crowd will get behind the Cinderella team if the game is competitive in the second half. Purdue, which was 0-9-1 ATS in its last 10 games before this tournament, tends to blow leads and is coming off an emotional and tough test against Texas.
The Jayhawks were less than impressive in the second round against Creighton, a game that exposed their defensive deficiencies. Kansas excels in transition offense with Ochai Agbaji and Remy Martin. Providence is physical, tough and far superior defensively.
Prediction: Providence + 7.5 is a potential play. The Friars, 7-2 SU and 8-1 ATS in an underdog role, will put up a fight.
Bruins forward Jaime Jaquez, the team’s most valuable player, is questionable with a sprained right ankle. Jaquez is a gamer who’s likely to play. UCLA has the tougher defense and gets a significant coaching edge with Mick Cronin. The Tar Heels are equally as talented and hot at the right time. R.J. Davis and Brady Manek combined for 56 points in the 93-86 overtime win against Baylor.
Prediction: I’ll bet on Carolina at + 2.5 or + 3 (-125) if the line stays the same. The Heels are unpredictable and volatile, but the Jaquez injury is a concern for UCLA.
The Cyclones’ half-court offense is no work of art, yet their defense is serious. While Kameron McGusty and the Hurricanes want to run, this will be played at a much slower pace than Miami’s 79-61 ambush of Auburn.
Prediction: Miami is my preferred side. However, the line opened Iowa State -1 and the Hurricanes are 2.5-point favorites after a sharp-money move.