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March Madness is "Under" Way
by Al McMordie - 03/21/2005
Vermont and Bucknell in. Syracuse and Kansas out. Who would've thunk it? What a wild weekend, as we are thick in the middle of college basketball's tournament time, with the Sweet 16 coming up. This is a good time to bring up the subject of "under" time in sports. No, this is not some counter-culture version of "overtime." By "unders" I'm referring to basketball games that go under the posted total. If you're a serious sports bettor you will find some dramatic line shifts with respect to totals, far more so than sides. Generally speaking, it's a bit more difficult for oddsmakers to post a solid number on a total than a side in basketball. In the Pistons/Spurs game Sunday, the side stayed right around pick 'em or minus-one for both teams. But notice the total in some places jumped 4 points, opening at 176 and closing around 172. Naturally, you can guess what bettors and the public were thinking: Two brilliant defensive teams going head to head, therefore a very low scoring game was expected. (The books cleaned up, too, as the head of Joe Public was spinning after the rather unbelievable final score of 110-101!)
While that game didn't turn into the defensive duel many expected, bettors still had the right idea, as the previous three meetings between the Spurs and Pistons sailed under the total. That's 3-1 now "under" the total, and 75% winners -- last time I checked my math -- will consistently garner you a serious profit in the world of eleven-to-ten! This is even more common in March in college basketball games. Teams that make it to their conference tournaments or the Big Dance generally will play extra hard on defense than they might during the regular season -- and it might be the last thing anyone remembers of your season if you lose. One reason is that so many people are watching, on TV and in the stands. A lazy defensive effort will embarrass yourself and your teammates. Another reason is so many of the games mean a great deal. This isn't always the case in the NIT tournament, as some teams are disappointed in getting an NIT invite as they were expecting more. But in tournament play and the NCAA tourney, coaches will often ask players to give more at the defensive end, and players usually respond.
Let's get back to Vermont. The Catamounts got here by dictating the pace, playing a slow tempo with hard working defense all season. So what happened the last three games? Under, under, under. Vermont is 3-0 "under" the total, even holding Syracuse to 57 points -- in overtime! With a total of 138 on that game, the linesmakers were off by 21 points. This is not uncommon when the games mean so much more like they do in March. Take a look at Wisconsin, a team traditionally known for rough, tough defense. The Badgers are 19-13 "under" the total on the year, and even though they come into March with a low scoring reputation that goes back several years, they are still 7-1 "under" the total the last eight games! They advanced Sunday, and for the record Wisconsin is 9-4 "under" the total in non-conference games this season.
Finally, Duke is another great example. Duke has a reputation as a wide-open offensive machine. Yet, many people may not realize that the Blue Devils were terrific defensively this season, leading the ACC in points allowed. Duke shut down Mississippi State Sunday with more brilliant defense, allowing 55 points in a game that went way under the total of 143.5. Duke is now 20-11 "under" the total on the season and 8-1 "under" the last nine games. Again, it's March, and don't be surprised if "unders" keep popping up in big games. Because while offense makes flashy headlines and causes TV broadcasters to whoop it up, defense wins games and titles.