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Opening Round Dance Steps

   by Scott Spreitzer - 03/13/2007

The week that college basketball fans wait for all year has finally arrived. The NCAA tournament starts in a matter of days. I wanted to devote this week's article to handicapping strategies you should be considering as you approach this first big weekend of action.

For me, handicapping the Big Dance starts during the conference tournaments the prior weekend. I make a list of all the top-notch teams who had early exits. These squads are definitely on my watch list because they've got talent, they've got a chip on their shoulder coming off an upset loss, and they've had extra rest and preparation time. To me this is a HUGE advantage. Now, I'm not saying that every single upset victim from last week will come out and cover their opening round spreads. I do expect most if not all of them to play well. That's a starting point for making quality selections, as far as I'm concerned.

I also make a list of all the teams in major conferences that "cut down nets" after winning a championship. I typically want to avoid these teams in their first games, particularly as big favorites. Here we've got the opposite influences in play. The team may be overconfident coming off a great weekend rather than having a chip on their shoulder. The team is likely to feel some lingering fatigue effects from playing at least three games in three days. And, their preparation could lack focus because of the hangover effect from the big celebration. I'm not saying all of last week's conference tourney winners will fail to cover their openers. A good percentage is likely to. Some of the winners will be upset fodder against dangerous first round floaters.

Once the brackets are announced, the first thing I do is look at the travel situations for all the teams. The media tends to make too much in my opinion of teams who don't have far to travel. They'll talk about loud cheering crowds and such because students and alumni can make the trip. That's all well and good. The players hear that and relax. Sports wagerers hear the media talking about it, which causes the line to get inflated. I will take some teams in a spot like this, but I make sure I'm getting line value.

To me, it's better to come at it from the other direction. I like to go against teams who have the furthest to go. Often lesser known teams have to fly more than halfway across the country to play. They're not used to this because lesser known teams typically play more restricted geographic schedules during the regular season. It can be a big adjustment.

If somebody like North Carolina or Duke is playing relatively close to home, you'll read and hear 100 stories about it before Thursday. If a 15th seed that's off the radar has to fly from one coast to another, it barely gets a mention. Many of the lesser seeds who get waxed in the first round had travel issues like that which didn't get noticed much by the wagering public.

I've had great success over the years finding upset specials in the first round, where double-digit seeds win outright against more well known opponents. This really isn't as hard as it seems if you know the key factors involved.

First, you want to back quality. If you don't have your own trusty set of power ratings, use a major computer rating system or other trusted sources so you know where the mid-major representatives stand in the big picture. Some teams you're not familiar with are actually very good.

Secondly, look to go against teams in the #3 to #6 seeding ranges who have clearly exploitable weaknesses. For some, it will be a soft defense. For others, it will be a tendency to rely too much on three pointers. For a few, it very well could be that factor we mentioned earlier about cutting down the nets the prior week.

Some of the shockers really aren't "upsets" at all when you know all the factors in play.

My final point involves competitive balance. Last year's tournament, and many in recent years, saw countless close games that went right down to the wire. There's so little difference amongst many of the competing teams that anything really can happen in 40 minutes of basketball. If one team hits a bunch of three-pointers, the other team may not have time to catch up. If one team gets some friendly officiating, the opponent really has to battle to make up for that from the floor.

In any wagering situation that is this random, you want to shade your action toward underdogs. This will be very difficult for some because the lines will seem low. Neutral site games don't have any home court advantage factored in. So, teams that you're used to seeing as medium to big favorites are suddenly small to medium favorites. Resist the urge to lay points all over the place. Pick your spots for favorites based on the earlier tips. Otherwise, you should be look to pass or bet underdogs.

Best of luck this week. I'll offer up some tips for handicapping the Sweet-16 the next time. See you then!

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