With its share of buzzer-beaters and upsets, the NCAA basketball tournament is wending its way to another memorable year. The decision to continue the tournament during the war is providing a needed diversion for both sports fans in this country and the troops fighting in Iraq.

In the penultimate weekend of the tournament we have an interesting array of games, although the point spreads for the matchups are larger than would ordinarily be expected in the third round. Part of my goal during this round is to avoid being too impressed or disappointed with performances in the first two rounds.

Because we have a limited number of games to bet on, the "public" money will be coming in on the teams looking impressive in the first two rounds. As a bettor, my goal is to zag when everyone is zigging and zig when everyone is zagging. Below are the matchups for this week's games. I've incorporated my power ratings into the charts this week, and the power ratings can be used to project the lines for Saturday and Sunday's Elite 8 games.



Teams Official Line Power Ratings Lieberman Line Difference
Thursday's Games
Wisconsin 10 2
Kentucky 12 0 10
Marquette 8 2
Pittsburgh 5 5 3
Notre Dame 10
Arizona 8 1 9 1
Duke 6
Kansas 3 3 3
Friday's Games
Auburn 14
Syracuse 5 8 6 1
Butler 14
Oklahoma 7 1/2 6 8
Connecticut 8
Texas 3 5 3
Michigan State 10
Maryland 3 6 4 1

I always find it useful to see if there are any trends at work in a particular round of the tournament to see if the trend will provide a discernible edge. For the third and fourth rounds, here are the statistics for the last six years.


Favorites in Third and Fourth Round Against the Spread
Year Third Round Fourth Round
2002 3-5 2-1-1
2001 6-2 2-2
2000 3-5 2-2
1999 2-5 1-3
1998 2-5-1 1-3
1997 4-4 4-0
1996 5-3 2-2
Totals 20-26-1 12-11-1

With the exception of 2001, underdogs have fared well in the third round, and I think they'll fare well this year, too. I say that because I believe the lines have been inflated on teams that have gone through the first two rounds without any hiccups, such as Kentucky and Pittsburgh. But in sports betting, there will generally be a regression to the mean, because the point spread on a team playing well becomes more onerous as a team's success grows.

Measuring the Matchups

This year, Kentucky is conceded to be the best team, and would be projected to win the NCAA tournament more times than any other team, if a "simulated" tournament were played 100,000 times. But the teams have a human component and don't always perform to their capabilities. As in horse racing, if you put enough weight on a horse, he'll eventually lose to inferior horses. In basketball, the point spread is the equivalent of weight added to a horse.

On Thursday night, I think too much "weight" has been put on Kentucky. Wisconsin is a well-coached, stout defensive team. They play the same type of game as Mississippi State, a team that played two close games with Kentucky this season. The Wildcats are playing well, but the pressure of their winning streak and the lofty expectations that are being placed on them, will cause a regression to the mean. I'll take the generous 12 points with the Badgers.

I also like Marquette plus five points against Pittsburgh. Both of these teams are well-coached and play disciplined, deliberate basketball. Marquette found a freshman who can step it up under pressure, in 6'10" Steven Novak, who hit clutch three-pointers in overtime against Missouri. Marquette matches up well with Pittsburgh, and the Panthers only shoot 64% from the free-throw line.

When I bet on a team and lay the points, I want a team that can seal the deal in a close game by making free throws down the stretch. I see this game as one that will go down to the wire, and I'll take the Warriors plus the five points.

In the Arizona-Notre Dame game, I don't have an opinion on which team will cover the point spread. However, I like the game to go over the posted total of 157 1/2. Both of these teams like to push the ball up and down the court and have the depth to do so. Both teams also have sharpshooters who can bury the three.

Arizona averages 85 points a game while Notre Dame averages 79 points a game. The game is being played at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim rather than a dome. In the last few years, I've noticed that teams playing in domes often have trouble with three-point shots because of the distorted depth perception caused by the unusual angles in a dome. There will be no such problem at the Western Regional, and I'm looking forward to the type of game that will give me a sore neck from turning my head back and forth so much.

In the other game in Anaheim, between Kansas and Duke, I think both the point spread and the total are spot on, and I have no opinion on the game.

On Friday, I think the Syracuse Orangemen will roll in the Eastern Regional in Albany. Syracuse is a surprisingly good defensive team, holding the opposition to less than 40% shooting. Carmello Anthony, a freshman, is a first-round draft pick in the NBA this year, if he elects to go pro. The supporting cast for Syracuse is also versatile, with three other players averaging double figures, including another freshman, Gerry McNamara, who stepped it up against Oklahoma State and hit three-pointers down the stretch last Sunday. Billy Edelin is also beginning to fulfill his potential for the Orangemen.

Auburn has been rather lucky in the tournament, winning two games where the superstars on their opponent's teams had poor shooting performances. Marquis Daniels is a first-round NBA draft pick for the Tigers, but his supporting cast isn't nearly as strong as that of the Orangemen. The regional site being only 100 miles from their campus also benefits Syracuse. I've laid the five points with the Orangemen.

In the Oklahoma-Butler game, I've placed a wager that the game will go under the posted total of 122 1/2. Both teams are excellent defensive teams and use most of the 35-second shot clock. My main concern is that both teams can hit three-point shots, and if too many three-pointers go in, the game won't go under, although both Butler and Oklahoma only permit about 14 three-pointers to be taken by their opponents during the course of a game.

In the South Regional, Maryland matches up very well with Michigan State in the physicality department and has more skilled players. I've laid the three points with the Terrapins and expect the line to go up as gametime approaches. Michigan State took advantage of two teams that had problems matching up on the inside with the Spartans. That won't be a problem for Maryland.

The other game, between Texas and Connecticut, has an appropriate line, and I have no opinion on the game.

I'll be back next week for analysis of the Final Four.
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 Vegasvice@aol.com.