We are at a transition point in the NCAA Tournament. Really, it's like a whole new tournament starts on Thursday, because what we will see over the four days of this weekend will bear little resemblance for both bettors and fans to what we saw over the last weekend of insanity. Bettors who ignore those differences and approach this coming weekend the same as last one are going to cost themselves money over the long term by sacrificing an edge and making value tough to find.
Here are five of the biggest differences between the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight and the two rounds that came before them:
The money gets smart(er): Casual bettors aren't smart bettors. They bet based on emotion, hype, and general biases. The more actively they are betting on a game the more you need to be concerned about the impact that action is having on how lines are set and how they move. Oddsmakers know when the public is likely to be betting and will do the best they can to exploit them. For a lot of casual bettors, though, the first and last weekend of the tournament are a lot more compelling than the middle weekend. On the first weekend they have the excitement of all the games, and their bracket is still intact. The final weekend has the allure of the championship, and the games are in very watchable timeslots. This weekend, though, most of the Cinderella stories have faded, and it's easier to let the games pass you by. Bettors who know what dumb money means can really take advantage of it over the first weekend of the tournament - and especially over the first round. This weekend, though, less dumb money means fewer odd lines and fewer situations where value is sitting there in bulk just waiting for you to feast on. It doesn't mean that you can't find value. It just means that you might have to work harder to find what you are looking for. On the plus side, though, dumb money is still in much larger supply this weekend than it is over a typical college basketball regular-season weekend, so if you are a regular winner then you'll be just fine.
Mismatches are few: In the first two rounds of the tournament we often see mismatches., and they often have the predictable outcome - just don't tell that to Michigan State fans right now. To get to the second weekend, though, you have to have won two games., That is far from easy, so teams that get this far are generally both good and in good form. We can still see some mismatches - there are a couple this year in my eyes - but the general gap between favorites and underdogs in the third and fourth round of the tournament is significantly lower than in the first two rounds. This is a difference, but it's far from a negative in my eyes. When you have two teams that are fairly well matched and are playing well then you can focus on which team has the edge and is likely to win. When a game is more of a mismatch, though, you need to focus not necessarily on which team will win but on how much they will win by. I'd much rather pick a winner than a margin of victory.
Time to breath: Things can be just crazy for teams heading into the NCAA Tournament. Major conferences finish their conference tournaments on Saturday or Sunday. They don't find out if and where they are playing next until Sunday evening. Then they have to scramble to deal with travel and game preparations. If they win their opener then they only have one off day to rest and prepare for their next game - something they rarely have to do. It is frantic, and it often means that teams aren't at their best early in the tournament - again, think of Michigan State. Things aren't quite as frenzied heading into this tournament. Teams knew where they would wind up playing if they won. And had a sense of who they might be playing. They still have to prepare and travel, but they have more time - or at least more comfortable time - to prepare and regroup. It often means that the team we see on the second weekend of the tournament looks better than the one that played on the first weekend. Because of this it can be a mistake to assume that a team that looked vulnerable despite their wins in the first weekend will look just as shaky in week two.
Reality becomes real: The opposite of the last point is that teams that seem to have been overachieving to get where they are can come crashing back to earth. Those teams can be riding a wave of momentum, adrenaline, and perhaps added rest to their success. Now, though, they have had a few days to sit around, think about what they have done, and worry about what is next. How often have we seen lower-seeded teams that looked unbeatable in their first two games go out with a whimper in the third round? This year is different than many in that there aren't many lower seeds still alive - the carnage largely came in the second round for the upstart squads - but this is still something to keep in mind.
Scrutiny intensifies: The pressure is always intense in the NCAA Tournament. It is as big as it gets for the sport. As things advance, though, the scrutiny and pressure only increases. There are fewer teams for people to talk about, and expectations of each team are higher because of their two wins. Some teams know how to deal with pressure, and they thrive in the face of it. Other teams are familiar with it but don't handle it well. Then there are the teams that aren't used to this kind of pressure, so we don't necessarily know how they will react. A team's ability to handle pressure has to be a bigger factor in handicapping than it has been at any point up until now.
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