In recent years we have seen the NCAA Tournament expand from 64 basketball teams to 65, and now to 68. There was talk when it went to 68 that it might go to 96, but thankfully that terrible idea was avoided. With the expansion of the tournament we are now faced with a series of play-in games in Dayton Ohio in the two days before the real tournament starts. Or rather, they used to be called play-in games. Now they are referred to as the first round. That makes the old first round the second round, and so on – unnecessarily confusing. Regardless of what the hoop games are called, though, they are games that people are obviously going to be interested in betting on. In most ways the games are just like the other games during the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament. In some ways, though, these games are quite different, and smart bettors are going to be able to recognize those differences and compensate for them accordingly. For college basketball handicappers, here’s a look at six ways in which the first round NCAA Tournament games are different than the later rounds:
Public knowledge of teams is often limited – Dayton is not where the Selection Committee sends the best teams. Teams seeded in the top half of the field don’t have to go, and at each seed level that has to play in Dayton it is the weakest teams at that level that have to play. That means that the teams are either conference champions from weaker conferences, or they are at-large teams that have not been overwhelmingly impressive in the regular season. That means that these college basketball teams aren’t likely to have spent a lot of time playing on national television, and they won’t have had a lot of coverage in the major sports media. The more coverage a team gets, the harder it can be to get an edge based on your knowledge of a team. When teams are obscure, though, then bettors who are willing to do their homework and really get to know a team can get a real edge over the general bettor, and can really find the values in the lines. These games present by far the best opportunity of the tournament for this to happen.
Teams with reputations will stand out – Because most college teams in these games will be reasonably obscure, any team that does have some national presence will stand out in the eyes of public bettors. It could be teams that play in a major conference, mid-majors that have had tournament success in recent years, or teams led by high profile coaches, for example. These basketball teams are likely to draw more than their share of public betting action – especially if the team they are playing doesn’t have a high profile. That can make value tougher to find on these teams than you normally might.
Public interest limited – Most brackets aren’t due until Thursday. That means that the public doesn’t really care about these games. The storylines aren’t exciting, the media coverage isn’t intense, and much bigger things are on the near horizon. The betting volume is much lower for these games than any other in the tournament as a result. That means that any one factor can have a bigger impact on the lines in these games than in other games with many more bettors betting much more money.
Some teams won’t be happy to be there – There is no glory in playing in Dayton. No team plays all year for a chance to play their way into the 64 team field. Some teams will be happy for any team they can get. Other basketball teams won’t be nearly as positive, though. That can have a huge impact on their attitude and their performance. It’s important, then, to see how players and coaches have been carrying themselves in the days leading up to their game – how they sounded in interviews, for example. A team that is unhappy about their fate will rarely play at their best unless they can channel their frustration into a motivating force.
Time frame could be short for some teams – It’s possible that a team could play in their conference tournament final on Saturday or Sunday and then be forced to play in Dayton on Tuesday. That is a short time frame at the best of times – especially after the grueling demands of a conference tournament. Given that the game was unexpected and the travel plans aren’t set in advance, though, the impact of this short turnaround could really be an issue – especially if the opponent is far more rested.
Crowd impact less than average – Fans of a team aren’t likely to be highly excited about a first round game, and they won’t have a lot of time to prepare to travel to the games even if they are. The crowds in Dayton are typically less partisan in other buildings as a result, and the environment can be less electric as a result. The crowd can be a big factor in tournament games – especially for underdogs when all of the fans in the building without a rooting interest jump on their bandwagon when they have a chance to pull off an upset. That’s much less of a factor in Dayton and probably won’t affect your college basketball handicapping.