Vegas Knows: NCAA Basketball

– Posted by Zurg –

On March 16th at 6pm, the college basketball world will tune in to CBS for Greg Gumbel to begin the best three weeks in sports. From the time the field is announced until the nets are cut down in Arlington on April 7th, a projected $12 billion will be wagered, making March Madness the biggest gambling event of the year in athletics.

Last season, over 8.15 million brackets were filled out for ESPN’s Tournament Challenge (including one in the 74.4 percentile by President Obama) – and an estimated 100 million more were penciled in across the country elsewhere.

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Assuming you do not make your picks based on favorite mascots, coolest uniforms, or better school location (NOTE: based on the past winners of my bracket pools, you might be better off doing that), you are going to need to do your research – and we’ll be here to point you in the right direction and make that a little easier over the next 5 weeks.

One of my preferred methods to picking the First Round (or Second Round? Whatever they are calling the Round of 64 these days…) is to look at Vegas Odds to see which teams “they” are picking to win. Last season, for example, 11-seeded Minnesota was favored by 3-points over 6-seeded UCLA before beating them 83-63. Vegas knows – and anytime the spread is close or ‘they’ favor a lower seed, it is worth it to take a deeper look at the matchup.

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So before I steer you in the “point spread” direction in 5 weeks when you are making your bracket picks, let’s first get familiar with the concept and look at the teams thus far this season that have outperformed by winning against the spread the most times:

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The Odds makers in Las Vegas have been wrong the most with these ten teams. Cleveland State sits alone at the top with 18 wins against the spread – and they also are tied for the fewest losses against the spread amongst teams that have played at least 19 games with a betting line (Wichita State, Villanova, & SMU).

In other words, Cleveland State has been unpredictable (in a good way if you are a Vikings fan) by outperforming the line set for them in 18 of 23 games this season. Charlie Lee’s 25 points led them to a road win at Wright State on Saturday, and the Vikings now trail Green Bay by a game in the Horizon League.

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It is not surprising to see Villanova on this list, as Jay Wright’s squad has certainly been a surprise this season. The Wildcats are 16-5 against the spread – and are 8-2 ATS in their last 10 games.

Another notable on the list, Duke has won its last 6 games against the spread (with the only real loss coming in the 91-89 overtime classic at the Carrier Dome when they were 4.5-point underdogs).

Wichita State has failed to cover just five times this season, but two of those occurrences were in the Shockers’ last three games (-20.5 against Loyola-Chicago and -19.5 against Evansville).

Next, let’s take a look at the teams that have won the most games as favorites this season:

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Wichita State, Duke, Villanova, UCLA, and Southern Miss find themselves on another solid list of teams. These ten teams have the most wins as favorites ATS this season.

Wichita State has played 3 games without a spread and only 1 as an underdog this season (getting 3.5 points in a December win at St. Louis, 70-65) – but they still have not played the most games as a favorite this season. That honor belongs to Wisconsin and Gonzaga (22 games each).

What about the most losses as a favorite? This is a list you almost certainly hope your favorite team is not on. Shaka Smart’s VCU leads in that category (12), followed closely by Gonzaga, Ohio State, St. Louis, BYU, and Oklahoma State (11). Some of those teams have struggled with high expectations this season – but it is worth looking into both St. Louis and Gonzaga to see why these top 25 teams ended up on this list.

St. Louis has won 16 games in a row since losing to Wichita State – but is just 7-7 in games ATS in that timespan. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is 21-4 this season, but the Bulldogs have apparently played in a lot of close games. They are 11-12 against the spread this season with close wins over heavy underdogs like Portland, San Diego, Santa Clara, and South Alabama.

On the other side of the expectation spectrum, UIC, Pepperdine, SIU Edwardsville, Miami (OH), Tennessee State, California Riverside, South Dakota, Hofstra, and Monmouth all have over 10 wins as underdogs this season. Evidently, Las Vegas has been selling them short.

In terms of the Over/Under (or a bet on the total number of points between each team), Northern Iowa, Pacific, Canisius, Rutgers, Iowa, Kansas, Villanova, Seton Hall, and Nevada have gone OVER the most this season. Northwestern, Arizona, San Diego State, and Cincinnati make up some of the notables on the list of teams to finish UNDER the most.

Finally, here is how all the Big East teams have performed ATS this season:

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Villanova has been the biggest surprise in the conference – and Vegas has thus been wrong about them the most. Since the battle for the Big East regular season title is between Villanova and Creighton, it makes sense that Creighton also has a strong record ATS. Xavier, like Villanova, is another somewhat surprising group, and its record against the spread is therefore impressive, as well.

St. John’s and Marquette have been the conference’s biggest disappointments so far, though the Johnnies are trying to rally of late, but both teams’ records ATS are expectedly poor.

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Villanova has been very strong as a favorite, while Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Providence have not. Georgetown is another disappointing team at this point in the year compared to preseason expectations, and the Hoyas’ record ATS and as a favorite are correspondingly mediocre.

DePaul and Seton Hall are tied for the most wins ATS as an underdog in the Big East, but Seton Hall’s record is by far the best in the conference in this category. Competing for a middle tier finish in conference play exceeds the consensus preseason (and midseason, for that matter) expectation for the Pirates.

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Villanova stands out the most on this list, as the Wildcats have been OVER the total points prediction twice as many times as they have been UNDER. Jay Wright’s offense is the 7th most efficient in the country according to Ken Pomeroy’s metrics, so this may not be as surprising as some might think.

Creighton’s O/U history this season is interesting because Vegas has seemingly overshot how many points the explosive offense led by Player of the Year frontrunner Doug McDermott will score.

Looking at how Las Vegas has implemented point spreads this year shows us teams that have overperformed, underperformed, and performed as expected. Vegas is right way more often than it is wrong, so looking at the outliers is always interesting.

Now that we know teams like Villanova, Wichita State, Duke, and even Cleveland State have beaten the odds in Vegas the most to this point in the college basketball season, it will be interesting to see how those trends are identified and how those teams perform against the spread in the coming weeks as Vegas is more aware of their abilities.

Did you like this post? Comment below or tweet @BEandBeyond if you want us to look at a particular team or answer any questions.

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