Tuesday, March 13 at 5:00 PM ET
LAS VEGAS – On Sunday afternoon, the discussions here in the sports books were just like those at sports bars and in living rooms all across the country.
We saw the No. 1 seeds and debated whether Michigan St. should have been given that honor or if Big 12 champ Missouri deserved to be on the top line of the West bracket (or if Kansas deserved it for their overall body of work during the season). There was some discussion of the bubble teams (Pac 12 regular-season champ Washington being snubbed, Iona in?, Drexel out? And so on).
The biggest discussion among wise guys here was about how the NCAA Selection Committee continued with its recent and troubling tradition of pitting teams from mid-majors against each other instead of giving them a shot at the big conference teams in the opening round. Murray St.-Colorado St., Wichita St.-VCU, New Mexico-Long Beach St., Memphis-Saint Louis. Everyone I talked to wanted to see those teams match up with teams from the so-called power conferences to see how they stack up instead of having them knock each other out, similar to the 2010 Fiesta Bowl when the BCS matched undefeated Boise St. vs. undefeated TCU when real college football fans wanted to see how they would fare against the major programs. The wise guys certainly were complaining about the unfairness of those teams not getting a fair shake, but believe me that we were also complaining for selfish reasons: we wanted to bet those teams against teams from major conferences where we would have been getting better odds.
But as spirited as those discussion were, even spilling over onto Twitter, they pretty much ended once the lines started coming out. Vegas wise guys know that you can’t bet matchups that aren’t on the board, so reality sets in and everyone gets back to work.
The first book to post lines for the opening games was an offshore, starting at 7:11 p.m. EDT/4:11 p.m. PDT and throughout the next hour, with Wynn Las Vegas being the first in Nevada shortly after 6 p.m. PDT. Many books both here and offshore then went up in that next hour and the lines were pounded into shape.
The goal of this column isn't to pick games (though I hope it helped some land on live underdogs in the conference tournaments as discussed in last week's column but instead to give an overview of what’s going on in Vegas to help you incorporate that into your handicapping and to make informed decisions.
Now, there’s no use going game by game in breaking down the line moves because in most cases we saw the lines moving toward each other and settle somewhere in-between. So, the "sharp money" was often on both sides as they took the best line they could get on the side they wanted, or even set up middles or arbitrage situations. However, there were seven games where both the Wynn and the offshore openers got bet in the same direction, so you could consider these the wise-guy moves and play these for that reason (though at slightly worse numbers than the pros got).
Thursday #713 Southern Miss vs. Kansas St.: USM opened +7 offshore and +6.5 at Wynn and was a consensus +5.5 by deadline Monday
Thursday #717 West Virginia vs. Gonzaga: The Zags opened -1.5 offshore and -1 at Wynn but it was down to pick-em just about everywhere Sunday night
Thursday #731 Harvard vs. Vanderbilt: Harvard opened +7 offshore and +8.5 at Wynn but has been pounded to +6 since
Friday #829 Alabama vs. Creighton: Bama opened +2.5 offshore and +1 at Wynn and has been bet to favoritism at -1.5 as of Monday night
Friday #832 Michigan St. vs. LIU-Brooklyn: The Spartans were one of the rare favorites to take lopsided early money, opening -16.5 offshore and -18.5 at Wynn and being at -20 by the end of the night
Friday #837 North Carolina St. vs. San Diego St.: This game opened pick-em offshore and San Diego St. -1 at Wynn, but has flipped to NC St. favored by 2
Friday #841 Texas vs. Cincinnati: Both offshore and Wynn opened Cincy -3 but money came in to knock it down to 2.5 on Sunday night and has continued to drop to 2 by Monday night
I’m an unabashed underdog player (some would stay that’s an understatement) and I have to point out a distressing trend I’ve seen that has made it harder for dogs to cover in the NCAA tournament. It’s not that we don’t see upsets every year, but finding value in taking the points is getting harder than it used to be. When I first moved to town in 1998 and started tracking these things into the early part of this century, it was a given that the No. 1 seeds would be favored by 25 to 30 points over the No. 16 seeds, the No. 2s would be around 20-point favorites over No. 15s, No. 3s would be in the double digits and so on until we had the No. 8 vs. 9 matchups around pick-em. You could bank on it.
Compare that to this year:
No. 1 vs. 16: Two games aren’t posted yet, but Michigan St. is -20 vs. LIU-Brooklyn and Syracuse is -17 vs. UNC-Asheville. Kentucky and North Carolina might be forced to lay more points, but so far those are around what we used to see from No. 2 seeds.
No. 2 vs. 15: They range from a low of Duke -12 vs. Lehigh (seriously?) to a high of Missouri -21.5 vs. Norfolk St. (that’s more like it).
No. 3 vs. 14: Georgetown is just -4 vs. Belmont (and some books at 3.5, which is what we could expect from No. 7 vs. 10 seeds) with Florida St. -6.5 vs. St. Bonaventure and Baylor -7.5 vs. South Dakota St., so basically all those are half what they used to be.
No. 4 vs. 13: They range from Michigan -6 vs. Ohio to Wisconsin -9.5 vs. Montana (the latter being what we used to get, and not surprisingly a popular underdog, including by yours truly).
From there it gets even stranger with No. 5 seeds ranged from only -4 to -6 (remember when we could get those No. 12 seeds at big spreads and large money lines? Ah, the good ole days!!!), No. 6 seeds between -2 and -4.5 with North Carolina St. the rare No. 11 seed to be favored; No. 7 seeds between pick-em and -3.5 with No. 10 Purdue -1.5 vs. St. Mary’s; and while we have the typical case of two No. 9 seeds being favored (UConn and Alabama), at least we have that Southern Miss +5.5 vs. Kansas St.
I guess none of that should be too surprising. Even the squares are more likely to bet underdogs after seeing all the March Madness upsets year after year, plus oddsmakers were bound to adjust sooner or later (was just hoping for later). It just means if you’re going to back an underdog, you have to be even more sure they’re capable of pulling the outright upset since it’s less likely for the point spread to come into play.
No. 1 seeds reprise (and betting/not betting futures)
Last week, I had an addendum on how the future-book odds at the LVH SuperBook could be used to project the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. The four lowest odds as of last Monday were Kentucky (9-5), North Carolina (9-2), Syracuse (6-1), Ohio St. (8-1) with the next foursome being Kansas (10-1), Michigan St. (12-1), Missouri (12-1) and Duke (20-1). That was even before Kansas, which most experts had pegged for a No. 1 seed, lost in the Big 12 semis. As it turned out, if Ohio St. had beaten Michigan St. in the Big 10 title game, that list might have been exactly correct.
Flash forward to the adjusted numbers after the brackets were announced and Kentucky was still the 2-1 favorite (since raised to 5-2), followed by Ohio St. (5-1), yes, even as a No. 2 seed the Buckeyes are the second choice above three No. 1s; North Carolina (6-1); Michigan St. (8-1); Syracuse, Kansas and Missouri (all at 12-1); and Duke (25-1). (Note: Syracuse was raised to 17-1 Tuesday after Fab Melo was declared academically ineligible.)
One final piece of advice on futures (I’ve written this many times and said it on radio shows and podcasts, and usually Tweet it anytime someone asks about a future-book price on a team): It’s almost always better to take a team you like and bet the money line on them and parlay your winnings from game to game (or series to series in MLB, NBA, NHL playoffs) instead of betting a future-book price off the board. The payoff from the parlay will usually be significantly higher and you can often pocket winnings along the way, too. It also gives you the flexibility to back off if something lessens your confidence (major injury, etc.) without having to make a huge hedge bet.
Happy handicapping (including using that knowledge with your brackets).
Dave Tuley is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Las Vegas race & sports beat since 1998, first for the GamingToday newspaper in Vegas and has written for Daily Racing Form since 2000. Tuley started his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, in 2007 and has written for other websites, including ESPN.com. In 2006, he won "Best News Story" by the Professional Football Writers of America, the only time a gambling story has won a PFWA award. Tuley, 45, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is married with children in Vegas. His roots can be seen in the names of his three children: daughters Jordyn and Peyton (named for Walter Payton, not Peyton Manning) and son Maddux. Dave can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.