Underdogs have been all the rage thus far in the NCAA tournament, both in the bracket and in certain parts of Vegas sportsbooks. But the second weekend is usually where things revert to the norm, which begs the question: How should I proceed with my bets?
The best advice is to ignore trends and tendencies from last week. The sample size is too small, rendering them tempting, but ultimately useless.
What isn't useless is analyzing trends and tendencies from the entire season. The eye test, when combined with advanced metrics, is a useful tool in identifying value bets all throughout the bracket.
Of the eight games taking place in the Sweet 16, here are the three best value bets you could make:
*Projected winners are in ALL CAPS*
No. 4 SYRACUSE (+5.5) vs. No. 1 Indiana
Do I think Syracuse will beat the East's No. 1 seed? Maybe, but probably not. But do I think the team is getting way too many points? Absolutely.
Their collapse down the stretch against Cal was hardly inspiring, but before that, the Orange played three truly brilliant halves of tournament basketball. Add it to a season that, while certainly not brilliant on the whole, included moments of brilliance, and you have a team that probably shouldn't be giving 5.5 points to anybody.
Especially a team that looked so bad on Sunday.
Indiana earned its No. 1 seed, and full disclosure, I have them making the Final Four on my bracket. And even after Sunday's close call against Temple, I wouldn't change that prediction. But I'd also have to be dense to pretend I didn't see what I saw.
I saw a team that had the tempo dictated at them, rather than a team that dictated the tempo. I saw a team whose star player spent the whole first half getting worked by Khalif Wyatt. I saw a team that, without a shaky call here or there (that Wyatt steal was clean), might be sitting at home right now.
Syracuse might not be good enough to beat Indiana, but it's certainly good enough to play it close. Beware the late-game free throws screwing your number (and as always, make sure to shop for the best number you can get), but don't be scared to take the points in this one.
No. 4 MICHIGAN (+2) vs. No. 1 Kansas
Another 1-4 matchup, another suggested underdog bet. This one couldn't be more different, though. You shouldn't take Michigan because it's merely gonna cover the spread. You should take Michigan because it's going to win.
Ken Pomeroy's rankings obviously shouldn't be taken as gospel (though 11 of his top 15 are still playing), but it goes without saying that Michigan ranks one spot higher than Kansas does. And there's a reason for that. The Wolverines are really, really good—especially for a four seed.
Kansas, unlike Michigan, looked dominant in conference play this season. But Michigan, unlike Kansas, played in a conference that challenged them to get better. Kansas is the only Big 12 team remaining, the conference having gone 3-5 overall in the tournament, 1-5 excluding the Jayhawks. By contrast, the Big Ten has four teams remaining (one in each region), the conference is 10-2 overall in the tournament, 8-2 excluding Michigan.
In layman's terms: 12-6 in the Big Ten was probably better than 14-4 in the Big 12.
Get in on this one early, since as more and more research comes out, more and more guys will jump on the Wolverines. But for now, at plus-2, thank your lucky stars you're getting in on this when you are.
No. 6 Arizona vs. No. 2 OHIO STATE (-4)
All those reasons listed above about Big Ten vs. Big 12 could be made, in slightly less convincing terms, about the Pac-12.
The latter has shown better form than the Big 12, sure, but it hasn't necessarily been impressive. Maybe they have in March, but certainly not throughout the season.
Arizona was scant tested during regular season play, and that foreboding trend, by no fault of the team's own, has extended to March. Blowouts over Belmont and Harvard are well and good, but those wins sound more like they'd be found in the Maui Invitational, not the NCAA tournament.
In Ohio State, Arizona be facing its stiffest competition in quite some time. The Buckeyes defend like no team they saw out west, and their offense continues to get better by the day (just ask Iowa State about LaQuinton Ross).
I'm a little trepidatious to give this many points after Ohio State's close round of 32 victory. However, I also think that (a) Iowa State was on fire, and (b) the Buckeyes learned a lot from that encounter. There will be no messing around when they face Arizona, and for the Wildcats, that could be serious trouble.
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