We’re just completing the fresh “First Four” games which slot future losers to first round games for Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament. One of the trickiest things as an oddsmaker is to be able to gauge the public’s perception as to how high we can set the bar with some preposterous number when a No. 1 faces a No. 16 seed.
Back in the day, we could slap a horrendous number on the favorites and pretty much get away with it. Mostly because neither the bookmaker nor the bettor had too much to go on. The bettor was looking at a team they knew was good against a team they had no a clue about.
But as the selectors of the tournament became more sophisticated and as information is far more abundant, we really have to give pause before just sticking up a 35 or more on a game. First of all, statistics that bear fruit come in the form of schedule strength for the underdogs.
If they have played a few top-tier teams (mostly at the beginning of the season) and they make the tournament, that’s an angle that doesn’t get by too many people in today’s competitive wagering war. Also, everyone has to be looking at the road records of every team because there are no more “home” games for anyone.
Another big difference from then and now is there’s no question there’s more parity of talent spread among the top teams, mid-majors and smaller schools. Superstars are at every level and can carry a team a couple of games deep into the tournament. We’ve all seen that happen so many times now.
So, what do we do?
Taking a look at two of the largest spreads in the first round this year sees both Villanova and North Carolina carrying 27-point margins they’re going to have to cover. This is a far cry from the wild numbers we used to pin on these very same games in yesteryear.
All of the factors we listed above come into play. But the most important may be we know the bettors are much smarter now because of the information they have at their fingertips. Also, there seems to have been a change of attitude by the heavily-favored teams to “cool” the engines when an apparent blowout is presenting itself.
During the tournament, winning margins have no place anymore. Health is more important. Bettors must consider the strength of a team’s second unit to maintain and uphold the large margins they were granted before they took the court.
And in many instances, this is the only chance these second-unit players get any real floor time for the entire tournament. As games get more competitive, coaches won’t give a damn about playing time for those guys nine deep on the bench.
One thing’s for sure, when the overall numbers are lower across the board with less variance from top to bottom, it’s much easier as an oddsmaker as we head farther into the tournament. As lowly teams drop to the wayside and are eliminated, there is much more of a chance that teams facing each other in future rounds can be compared to similar talent in their previous contests to make close comparisons and more solid numbers.
If you don’t see runaway games (aggressive number movements) in the first round, it’s probably not going to happen much later in the tournament. The exception is the super underdog and everyone’s darling that wins a few games and make it to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.
Then both sides of the counter have to figure how high to post the spread. There could be a huge difference in the number if two teams meet in the third and fourth rounds instead of the opening round.
As an example, what would you make Kentucky-Northern Kentucky if they faced each other in the Sweet 16? The spread is at -20 right now for their Round of 64 matchup, but it wouldn’t be -20 that deep into the tournament.
The interesting thing there is that a team’s overall rating doesn’t change that much in two or three games and since every matchup pits teams that won their previous games to get there, it probably should still be -20 theoretically. But we know the public’s memory only goes back one game or so. So this game would be maybe between -12 and -14 later further down the bracket.
All in all, days of the super high spreads in the first round have been diffused as neither the bookmaker or the bettor really think there’s that much of a discrepancy between two teams at this point. It doesn’t mean that teams aren’t blown out by 40 or 50 points, it just means we don’t have to make the spreads that high to maintain good two-way action on a game.
Peter Korner is a long-time Las Vegas oddsmaker and analyst, working at the Las Vegas Sports Consultants and operating his own odds service, The Sports Club. Find out more about Pete and his storied career in the sports betting industry here.