The NCAA tournament is coming down to the finish line, with the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight trimming down the Field of 68 to just four national title contenders. Professional sports handicapping this point of the tournament is a different beast than wagering on the first four days.
Here’s how your handicapping should change as March Madness comes to a close and what to look for in the final rounds of the NCAA tournament:
Talent trumps all
It’s not that surprising that most Final Four cards showcase the same handful of college basketball blue bloods every year. And while many of the top-seeded programs were shown the door early after a crazy opening week, a number of March Madness staples remain: Kansas, Villanova, Duke, and Gonzaga.
These elite teams are also among the most talented with pro-ready players stepping up at the biggest time of the year. And no matter how many seniors a program boasts, they don’t stack up to the top-tier freshmen and sophomores – thanks in part of the NBA’s one-and-done rule. Talent will most often win out in the final rounds of the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA tournament is a grueling challenge for college basketball programs. And it’s not just the games that wear on teams, it’s the travel and the stress of competing under the national spotlight. Depth can be the difference between covering and not for sports bettors.
As coaches look down the pine for support or try to offset surprise foul trouble, reserves who can come in and provide quality minutes without allowing too much of a letdown are so vital to those tight March Madness spreads at this point in the Big Dance.
As we head into the Sweet 16, two teams standout in terms of capping depth: Nevada and Florida State. The Wolf Pack could be playing with fire, running only six players deep overall – one coming off the bench. On the other hand, FSU has gone as many as six players into its bench during the tournament.
Defense wins championships
It may be cliché, but defense really does win championships – or at least gets teams to the Final Four. And one of the best indicators of how stout a team is on that end of the floor is ranking their adjusted defensive efficiency – among those popular KenPom stat sets.
Looking back over the last six NCAA tournaments shows that no Final Four qualifier has ranked beyond the Top 40 in defensive efficiency and that half of those 24 semifinal programs have finished among the Top 10 in this stat. It really is a telltale stat when it comes to picking teams worthy of a national title run.
Sizing up the remaining 16 teams in this year’s Big Dance, six of those teams sit among the Top 10 in defensive efficiency: Michigan, Texas Tech, Syracuse, Clemson, Duke and Texas A&M. And only three remaining NCAA teams are outside of the Top 40: West Virginia, Kansas and Florida State.
One trend that popped up during the opening week of the NCAA tournament was first-half Unders. While tournament games finished 21-31 Over/Under – a near 60 percent winning clip for the Under – simply betting the Under on the first half number produced a 17-35 Over/Under record – a blistering 67 percent winning clip for first-half Unders through the play-in games, Round of 64, and Round of 32.
That could continue into the later rounds of the tournament with defense taking precedent, teams playing a little tighter under the pressure of the national stage, and games moving to larger venues which can make shooting a tougher challenge as range of depth shifts from smaller arenas and gyms to bigger stadiums.