The NCAA Tournament is one of the great sporting events in the world, and the Final Four is rarely a letdown. For many people, though, the best part of the tournament isn't actually the final weekend but rather the first two days. On the first Thursday and Friday of action it's wall-to-wall action. Little work gets done as games are played from practically sunrise until well after sundown. It is, truly, madness.
To make that madness a little less mad - because less craziness is a good thing for bettors - here is a look at some March Madness betting trends, focusing entirely on the first 32 games of the tournament played in the first round on Thursday and Friday. We'll look back at what happened last year to see what we can learn about what could happen this year. Hopefully you can use these trends to find a few winners to kick off your tournament:
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Favorites: In 2015 it was a truly lousy year to bet favorites in the first round of the tournament - they went a dismal 13-19 ATS. They fared significantly better last year yet not well enough to produce a profit - they were 15-16 ATS (one game was a pick 'em, so it had no favorite). Favorites were actually slightly profitable on Thursday with an 8-7 ATS mark but gave all that back with a 7-9 ATS record on Friday. Both of those were a huge improvement over the Thursday session on 2015, in which favorites had a horrid 4-12 ATS mark.
Underdog outright winners: I'm a sucker for underdog outright winners because I love betting viable underdogs on the moneyline. You don't have to hit at a super high rate to make a profit if you are getting decent prices. So was the first round a good time to bet underdogs on the moneyline? Thursday certainly wasn't - only Yale as a 5.5-point underdog and Little Rock, which was giving up eight points, won outright. Both those teams were No. 12 seeds, again proving the potency of teams with that ranking in the first round. Overall, though, the underdogs were a big loser on the day for moneyline bettors. And on Friday? Middle Tennessee was a big winner as No. 15 - they were 16.5-point underdogs against Michigan State. Hawaii, Wisconsin, Stephen F. Austin, Northern Iowa and St. Joe's all won as underdogs, too. That's six of 16 - enough to turn a profit on the day but not likely overall on the two days.
Higher seeds: Eight of the 32 games featured the lower seed as the betting favorite - a big increase from just three the year before. Six of those eight teams won, and all of them covered the spread as well. 6-2 ATS is a pretty impressive mark here - albeit from a small sample size. Eventual Final Four entrant Syracuse was favored by a point as a No. 10 seed. They obviously won outright and covered. VCU won and covered. So did Butler. And UConn. And Providence. And Gonzaga. Pitt lost as one-point favorites. Cincinnati lost as 3.5-point favorites. What stands out, though, is the quality of some of those underdogs - you could make a strong argument last year that VCU, Butler, UConn, Providence and especially Gonzaga were all seeded significantly lower than they deserved to be.
If the seeding committee is in a similarly bad mood this year then there could be opportunities again. In 2015 these teams were again profitable, but at just 2-1 ATS.
Close to home: We hear a lot in the tournament about the advantages of playing close to home. Travel is easier and more fans can travel, so teams playing close to home should have an edge if this really is an advantage. To test that I looked at all teams that played in their home state or a neighboring state. It's not perfect because it misses some easy travel - Kansas doesn't directly border Iowa, but it's close enough that the travel to Des Moines for the Jayhawks was easy, for example. It's a good general rule, though.
There were 11 teams that fit the criteria last year. Two of them - Virginia beating up on Hampton in Raleigh - played each other, so they aren't useful to us. How about the other nine? For starters, seven of the nine won outright - Temple lost as an underdog, and Texas lost as a favorite. Temple did cover, though, and led the way to a 6-3 ATS mark. Aside from Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina both won but did not cover. So the geographically-advantaged team produced a profit - as they did in 2015 when they went 6-4 ATS.
Play-in game winners: Teams that are forced to play in Dayton face a quick turnaround, with their next game coming just two days later. So how did those four winners do on Thursday and Friday? Not great. Florida Gulf Coast lost to North Carolina, but in a rarity for No. 16 seeds they covered the spread comfortably. Wichita State won and covered handily. Michigan lost and didn't cover against Notre Dame. Holy Cross got crushed by Oregon. So add it all up and these teams were just 1-3 straight up but 2-2 ATS. That is exactly the same record as 2015. It can't be that surprising to see these results - these teams weren't sent to Dayton because they are the best and most reliable teams out there
The big spreads: Last year we had 13 games that had double-digit spread. Impressively, the favorites were a strong 9-4 ATS in this case. That's hugely-profitable, but don't get too excited - the year prior the underdogs were the dominant ones at 8-2 ATS.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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