March Madness is finally here. This is the time of year where the water cooler talk turns to college hoops, where the debates begin about who belongs in the Big Dance and who was robbed.
I've been away from writing for
for a couple of years, but I've continued to wager here in Las Vegas, the only state in the country where sports betting is legal. Of course, offshore wagering has now far surpassed the legalized betting in Las Vegas, so many people now have access to betting with a click of the mouse. The purpose of this column is to analyze March Madness from a point-spread perspective, while also providing insight into the relative strengths of teams from different conferences.
In handicapping conference tournaments, there are a number of factors to take into consideration in deciding which teams will prevail, both straight up and against the point spread. For me, the starting point is power ratings. Power ratings are measures of relative strength between teams. Oddsmakers keep power ratings and set the line by comparing the power ratings between teams. I also keep power ratings, which I adjust on a weekly basis during the season, depending on how the teams perform.
My power ratings start with the best team at the beginning of the season as a zero, with the rest of the teams following with higher numbers. This year, the worst Division I college team that had betting lines available was Tennessee State, with a power rating of 42. Since Arizona and Kentucky are my top teams and are now rated as a 1, each of them would be a 41-point favorite over Tennessee State on a neutral court.
To arrive at what I believe is the appropriate point spread on a particular game, I compare the power ratings of the two teams. The team with the lower power rating will be favored over the team with the higher power rating by the power rating differential, adjusted for any home court advantage. For example, if St. John's were to play Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament, the correct point spread would be Pittsburgh -5, arrived at as follows: Take 14 (St. John's power rating) minus 7 (Pittsburgh's power rating), minus 2 points for St. John's home court advantage.
for the teams in conference tournaments coming up this week.
Covering the Spread
Once I've established my point spread on the basis of the power ratings, I look for special factors that will make it more likely that one team will cover the point spread. Following are some of these special factors.
For the conference tournaments, depth of talent is a very important factor in handicapping games as the weekend progresses. It's a grueling task to ask any team to win four games in four days. Check the box scores after each game to see how many minutes the starters were forced to play. If there is an overtime or double-overtime game, look for the team winning that game to be fatigued in its next game.
In such a situation, I'll adjust my point spread to account for what I believe will be an abnormal performance by the fatigued team. If you doubt this angle, look at what Creighton, which is 10 players deep, did to Southern Illinois on Monday night.
Particular matchups are sometimes important. For example, certain teams live and die by the three-point shot. A team like Indiana defends the three-point shot better than any team in the country, allowing only 4.7 of 16.4 (28.4%) three-pointers to be made per game. Thus, I would be more likely to bet a team like Indiana when they are playing a team like Minnesota, which averages 21 three-point shots a game. To prepare for this angle and others, I check the season statistics at one of the many great Web sites that carry statistical information.
Certain point-spread trends have emerged over the last few years. One of the strongest trends in conference tournaments can be seen when a favored team is playing a team that it lost to in either the last of the two games they played this season or in the only game they played this season. That situation is called "Favorite Single Revenge," and between 1996 and 2002, the favorite has covered the point spread about 60% of the time under those circumstances.
Although conventional wisdom holds that beating a team three times in a row in a season is difficult, the point spread trends tell us that the conventional wisdom is wrong in this case, since teams that have beaten a team twice during the regular season cover the point spread in the conference tournament game at a 55% pace. Here's a chart of these statistics for the last seven years.
In the first or quarterfinal rounds of the tournaments on Thursday and Friday the following teams are in a Favorite Single Revenge situation:
- Temple -2 over Richmond
Ohio State -1 over Iowa
Indiana -13 over Penn State
Iowa State -1 over Texas A & M
Texas Tech - 7 1/2 over Baylor
Colorado -4 over Kansas State
Alabama -8 1/2 Vanderbilt
Mississippi -2 South Carolina
Nevada - 6 1/2 over Louisiana Tech
Florida State -1 over Clemson
In tournaments, I always look for teams that have played well on the road. Almost every team plays better at home than on the road, but some teams are so bad when they're on the road that I can't trust them in a situation where they don't have the comfort of playing in their own arena. Teams like Alabama and Indiana are almost unbeatable at home, but they always seem to underperform on the road. On the other hand, Arizona and Kentucky play almost as well on the road as they do at home.
Certain teams are playing well at the end of the season, and certain teams are playing poorly. Most of the time, I reflect recent performance of a team in my weekly adjustment of power ratings, but oddsmakers may not be so quick to make the appropriate change. In my opinion, the following teams are playing well lately and merit special attention: Syracuse out of the Big East, St. Louis from Conference USA, Central Michigan from the Mid American, Xavier of the Atlantic 10, Wisconsin from the Big 10, Texas out of the Big 12, Louisiana State from the Southeastern, Boise State of the WAC, Brigham Young from the Mountain West, Arizona from the Pac 10 and Wake Forest of the ACC.
Some teams are locked into their NCAA Tournament seeds and can't harm themselves by losing in their conference tournament. Both Kentucky and Arizona fall into this category. If I'm Tubby Smith or Lute Olson, I'm happy to play one game to tune up for the tournament and then lose in the semifinals and go back home to get a start on the game plan for the opposition (particularly the second-round games) when the pairings are announced on Sunday. I plan on betting against both Kentucky and Arizona in all their games this week.
There are many parallels between sports betting and stock trading. Researching to find an edge is the key to the success in both endeavors. Money management is also very important. I never chase my losses by doubling up. While I'll increase the amount of my wager, if I feel I have a stronger edge, I never bet more than three units on a game.
Good luck this weekend. Vegas Vice will be back next Wednesday with a look at the NCAA Tournament. In preparation for the next week's tournament, here's a poll to find out which team you think needs to at least get to its conference's championship game to get an invitation to the Big Dance.
Barry Lieberman was a litigator with the U.S. Department of Justice for nine years and is currently the general counsel for a company that operates four hotel/casinos in Las Vegas. He has been an amateur gambler for more than 20 years. He welcomes your feedback at