Sweet 16 March Madness Betting Advice: Don't Fall in Love with Underdogs
The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament can often get crazy, and this weekend has been crazier than usual. Of course, the capper of it all was UMBC's stunning dismantling of top-seeded Virginia, marking the first time a No. 16 has won and the first time in years they have even come close. But Buffalo manhandling Arizona, Texas A&M destroying North Carolina in Charlotte, Loyola and Syracuse winning twice as No. 11 seeds, Nevada going on a 32-8 run and taking their only lead at the end of the game over a very good Cincinnati team, and Florida State coming back late to beat Xavier, all qualify as shocking upsets as well.
We know how exciting upsets can be - each of these games was filled with wonder. And we know that casual bettors really love upsets. But while the craziness is still fresh in our minds, it's a good idea to put them into context and to really think about what we know about upsets and what they really mean for serious handicappers.
It's only one game: I saw a lot of crazy analysis after the Virginia loss that talked about how overrated they are, how flawed they were, and how they were inevitably doomed. I also heard a lot of people talking about how underrated the Retrievers, suddenly everyone's favorite team, were. I didn't like Virginia much coming into the tournament, but that talk is all garbage. If the two teams played a best-of-seven series, Virginia would win in five. If they played 100 times Virginia would win 95. Or 99. On that day, though, something was in Virginia's heads, and UMBC found the exact formula to exploit it. They pushed the play at a time when Virginia wasn't up to having it pushed. And as soon as things went badly, Virginia, for reasons we'll never understand, quit. It was a perfect storm that day, but it only happened on that day. It doesn't mean that UMBC is a great team or that Virginia was grossly overrated. It's what happens when there is single elimination. Similarly, Buffalo played a perfect game against Arizona, but if you think the Bulls are better than the Wildcats then you are on crack.
Perspective is so important here. If you handicapped the game and thought that Virginia had a clear and massive edge on UMBC then you shouldn't beat yourself up. It's not that your handicapping failed you or that you missed something. It's that if you watch something often enough, something crazy will happen. The story about the guys who bet $800 to win on UMBC in Vegas and cashed for $16,800 made the rounds this weekend. Never forget one thing, though - those guys are idiots. They were betting for something to happen that hadn't happened in 132 tries when they made the bet, and they were betting against the country's top defense. They won, but they are still morons who made a terrible bet, and every casino in the world would climb all over each other to get to take that bet every single time someone wants to place it.
Carrying momentum is hard: UMBC looked spectacular in that opener. They had an answer for everything, and you were left to wonder how every bigger school in the country had missed on Jairus Lyles. It was impressive. But in their second game against a very underwhelming Kansas State team they just didn't have it. They looked tired, the magic shooting of the opener was gone, and they couldn't push the pace and dictate the game. The magic was gone. Buffalo, similarly, dominated Arizona but got crushed by Kentucky. And Marshall went from nearly perfect to perfectly ordinary in two days. You have to remember that these are just kids, and that after a big win in their opener they are going to get attention like they have never even imagined. And they aren't going to sneak up on their next opponent, either. Some teams can carry the magic a little further - Loyola is still dancing, for example. But there is absolutely no reason to believe that a team that did something amazing once is going to do it again.
Matchups mean everything: UMBC pushed the tempo and hit every possible shot against a team that isn't a great shooting team and plays at a lethargic pace. It was an ideal matchup - which, combined with all sorts of other bizarre circumstances, was enough to dictate the outcome. But they didn't have the ideal matchup in the second round, and that was a factor in their demise. Loyola, on the other hand, drew teams in both of their games that had a lot going for them but which were probably a bit of a stretch for their seeding. The path worked for them. For Buffalo, playing Kentucky two days after playing Arizona was just too much. Their path worked against them. How hot a team is, or how much magic they have, or how great their story is, is far less important in a real sense by who they have to play and when.
Just let the chaos wash over you: The stupidest thing that happens every year is that people think that they actually know anything when March rolls around. We don't. This is one crazy spectacle of a mess of a tournament. That's what makes it so easy to love and so fun to watch. But it also makes it frustrating and annoying, too. The more you can accept that craziness can happen, and that you can't do anything about that, the more fun you'll have and the more successful you'll be betting on the tournament. You can't wrestle the tournament into submission. You can just pick your best spots and accept that inevitably things will happen that make absolutely no sense at all.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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