Sunday, March 9, 2014 | 3 a.m.
The biggest sports betting weekend of the year is so near, it feels like lines are forming already at sports books’ windows while bad beats roll out on the televisions overhead.
Las Vegas casinos annually book more action during the beginning of the NCAA Tournament than any other event. Bettors have 52 games to gamble on before the tournament breaks ahead of the Sweet 16.
With that volume of options, it’s important to come prepared. That’s why we’ve pored over the past five years’ worth of opening-weekend tournament data and spreads to present eight tips and trends worth considering:
• Think upset early. In the past two years, the underdogs in the “First Four” play-in games have gone a combined 6-2 against the spread and 4-4 straight up. Dating to the 68-team field’s inception in 2011, underdogs are 7-4-1 against the spread and 5-7 straight up in the First Four contests.
• Virginia Commonwealth memorably broke out of the inaugural “First Four” to win and cover in five straight games to reach the Final Four in Houston. But the Rams are the exception, as most teams forced to play an extra game haven’t fared well once they make the field of 64. The 11 other First Four victors have gone 4-10 straight up and 5-9 against the spread after their first win.
• Granted, half of those teams were outmatched No. 16 seeds taking on No. 1 seeds. The 1 vs. 16 pairing has never produced an upset, but it’s getting closer to happening. In the past five years, the average spread in those games is 21 points. The team seeded 16th has gone 9-11 against the spread. Compare that with a five-year sample from 2000 to 2004, when the average spread was a whopping 28.5 points with the No. 1 seeds going 13-7 against the spread.
• Ride the nation’s best teams in the opening weekend. Since 2009, teams seeded 1 through 4 have gone 88-61 against the spread and 124-26 straight up in the first two rounds. For bracket-filling purposes, that means a top-4 seed has a 67.5 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16.
• The success rate falls off massively with No. 5 seeds, which are a bankroll-burning 10-20 against the spread — the worst record of any seed. A 5 hasn’t made the Sweet 16 since Arizona in 2011.
• No. 12 seeds have not only pulled off the most first-round upsets but were also the best teams to gamble on during the opening weekend the past five years. They are a gaudy .633 against the spread, going 19-11 versus the number in the first two rounds. They are an even 10-10 straight up against the higher-profile No. 5 seeds.
• Don’t bother placing a bunch of money line bets on big underdogs to win outright in early games. It’s unprofitable because massive upsets happen less than they may appear on highlight shows. In the past five years, only seven double-digit underdogs have prevailed straight up in the first round. The biggest upset came two years ago when No. 15 Norfolk State downed No. 2 Missouri as a 21-point underdog. The average spread of games in which an upset occurs, however, is minus-5.5.
• Want some coaches and teams that have been straight money in the NCAA Tournament? Here’s a trio. Arizona is 14-2-1 against the spread in the NCAA Tournament since Sean Miller took over its program. In a similar span, Michigan is 15-3 versus the postseason number under Jon Beilein. And, lastly, Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart has cashed in eight of 10 tournament games.