Call it a national “look-ahead” situation.
The arrival of March has college basketball players across the country thinking ahead to the NCAA Tournament. Selection Sunday is now just two weeks and a day away. Teams that already have locked in invitations could have trouble maintaining peak intensity during the relatively meaningless prelude.
This is very important for bettors to understand because market prices for ranked teams generally reflect peak performance. Duke is never priced to struggle. If big-name teams aren’t able to give their best, bettors will get the best of it by fading them.
From Monday through Thursday of this past week, teams ranked in the AP Top 25 went 4-13 against the spread (throwing out Kansas State-Kansas, where two ranked teams played each other). A couple barely showed up. A couple more were upset. And a slew of favorites won, but couldn’t quite reach their high hurdles.
- No-shows: No. 17 Maryland fell way behind early in a 78-61 loss to Penn State at pick ’em. Also, No. 18 Iowa was routed by Ohio State, 90-70, as three-point underdogs.
- Upsets: No. 2 Duke (-3) lost at Virginia Tech, 77-72; No. 19 Wisconsin (-2¹/₂) lost at Indiana, 75-73, in two OTs.
- Dodging bullets: No. 4 Kentucky (-15) barely held off Arkansas, 70-66, after falling way behind early; No. 7 Tennessee (-5) needed a very favorable late call to sneak past Ole Miss, 73-71; No. 11 Texas Tech (-14¹/₂) had to go overtime to beat lowly Oklahoma State, 84-80; and No. 23 Cincinnati (-4¹/₂) won ugly at SMU, 52-49.
- Not quite enough: No. 5 North Carolina (-11) beat Syracuse, 93-85; No. 8 Florida State (-11¹/₂) beat Notre Dame, 68-61; No. 12 Nevada (-17) beat UNLV, 89-73; and No. 21 Buffalo (-15) beat Akron, 77-64.
- Some favorites proved immune: No. 2 Virginia, No. 8 Houston, No. 13 LSU and No. 14 Purdue coasted to easy wins. But those were the heavily outnumbered exceptions.
If you’re a recreational bettor, you’re probably thinking about which favorites you want to back this weekend. As you make your decisions, think long and hard about whether your choices are going to be motivated to win big. Their most important games are later this month, not this weekend. Larger favorites will be satisfied just to win … they don’t need to win by 15-20 points. If anything, coaches with big leads will rest their key players for more important battles ahead.
Flat favorites may not even get to their number. Focused favorites can temporarily reach their targets before the bench leaves the back door open.
Sports betting is a percentage game. Trying to make money with college basketball favorites can be tough anyway because sports books guard against public tendencies. When those favorites aren’t focused, hurdles are even harder to clear. Put the percentages more in your favor by thinking about motivated underdogs instead. Or, if you’re just not comfortable betting ’dogs, bide your time until the Dance, when your favorites have a better chance to fly.