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 RealMoney 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. Click here for my power ratings 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.