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David Can Slay Goliath
by Jim Feist - 03/12/2009
It's that time of year again: Basketball games night and day, day and night and after a few hours of sleep, we wake up the next day and go through it all over again. NCAA tournament play is one of the most enjoyable times of the year for sports fans and bettors, with a seemingly endless stream of action and excitement.
Big name schools often end up playing for the title. Florida of the SEC took home back to back national championships by beating UCLA and Ohio State in 2006 and '07. Last year it was Kansas winning another title. In 2005, Illinois, North Carolina, Louisville and Michigan State met in the Final Four, and in recent years we've seen Texas, Syracuse, Indiana, Oklahoma, Duke, Arizona and Maryland. Big names, all of them, with no surprise schools like Pacific, Winthrop, Ohio or Stony Brook ever sneaking in. Large, high profile schools have big athletic budgets and enough scholarships to attract some of the top basketball talent, which is a key to their success.
However, this doesn't mean smaller, lesser-known schools can't compete with the big boys at times, especially when you look at one 40-minute game. There are countless examples for sports bettors. Think for a moment: You don't remember seeing Duke much in the Big Dance two years ago, do you? That's because the Blue Devils got upset in the first round, losing to VCU, 79-77. That same weekend UNLV upset Georgia Tech and Wisconsin on its way to the Sweet 16.
Three years ago the big story was George Mason out of the Colonial Athletic Association. The Patriots made it to the Final Four by knocking off Michigan State, North Carolina and UConn. They were 5, 6 and 8 point dogs in those games. Four years ago in the first round alone, Wisconsin-Milwaukee upset Alabama 83-73, UConn squeaked by Central Florida 77-71 as a 19-point favorite, Bucknell stunned Kansas 64-63, and Vermont took Syracuse to overtime and won 60-57.
Did you forget all those surprises? With so many games in March, it is easy to forget the early rounds. How about tiny Holy Cross few years ago? The Crusaders had to face Dwyane Wade and Marquette in the tournament opener and as a 10-point dog, Holy Cross covered in a close 72-68 game. Holy Cross also gave mighty Kansas, with Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Coach Roy Williams, a run for their money. At first glance, some of the games look like mismatches, but a good handicapper is skilled in the art of careful analysis and patience.
Every year one or two little known teams make memorable runs. Butler and Cleveland State just played for the Horizon league title. Butler is no stranger to pulling surprises. A few years ago, Butler topped Mississippi State 47-46 and then upset Louisville, 79-71. Which brings up a good point for serious sports bettors: It is not wise to take big favorites on the money-line. The payoff is poor, and successful sports wagering is as much about money management as it is picking winners. Taking a shot with a big dog who you think might be able to hang in there is much smarter than wagering $900 to win $100, for example, on a minus-900 favorite. Surprising upsets happen all the time.
Several things are happening. One is the old NFL axiom, "On any given Sunday" one team can beat another, regardless of record or talent. Sometimes the better team simply has a bad night shooting the basketball, or the big underdog can't miss. One of the most memorable upsets came in the 1985 NCAA Finals when Villanova, a +10 dog, upset mighty Georgetown, 66-64. The Wildcats hit 22-of-28 field goals, a sizzling 78%. It would be tough to beat ANY underdog that shoots 78%!
Another reason is that some smaller schools happen to have NBA-caliber talent. Miami of Ohio made a memorable run in 1999 with future NBA talent Wally Szczerbiak. Miami went 24-8 SU/17-14 ATS that season and upset Washington in the NCAA tournament, 59-58 as a +2 dog, beat Utah 66-58 as a +8 dog before falling to Kentucky as a +10 dog. You never know: schools like Cornell, Cleveland State, Xavier, or Northern Iowa just might be showcasing future NBA talent this month.
Other times a small school has a great coach or a collection of talented kids who play tough defense and believe in themselves enough to upset traditional powers. You may recall a March tourney where the Detroit Titans upset UCLA 56-53 and Weber State beat mighty North Carolina 76-74 as a +14 dog! Teams are generally motivated to play in the NCAA tournament, but this isn't always the case with the NIT. Some teams that were hoping to get to the Big Dance are disappointed at being selected for the lower-seeded NIT or CBI and aren't always focused for their best effort.
Sometimes there are look-ahead spots, where a high-seeded team might be looking past an opponent it might not take seriously. That's what appeared to happen in the game I mentioned earlier, Kansas against Holy Cross. Kansas needed a second half push to top the Crusaders 70-59 as a 29-point favorite. It also wouldn't have been the first time a small school upset a big-name program. Don't take big favorites on the money-line and don't simply lay the points on the more famous conference or school without doing your homework, because tourney time is loaded with surprises.