I don't know if you've been listening to our prez, but we are in the midst of an economic catastrophe, people. This is no time to be wasting hard-earned dough, even just $20 (sorry, units) on an NCAA bracket.
Which is why, even though the tourney is still weeks away, I've decided to turn the next three installments of BTB into a mini stimulus bill. It'll be nothing but tips, hints and traps to avoid so you can win your pool and be totally flush. Then you should do the patriotic thing and buy stuff (like my books, or the Mag, or a subscription to Insider. Or perhaps something useful).
These are pointers straight from wiseguys who've been putting their hard-won money on the line. You gotta know, college hoops gamblers are different than their betting brethren. They see the games as a business opportunity sure but, unlike a lot of pros betting NFL, they genuinely love the game. And come March 19, no one will have studied the 64 teams lacing 'em up more than these guys.
One thing that's always intrigued me about college hoops is how some coaches treat the collection of talent as the ultimate prize, and then brain-freeze in the tourney. As a suburban Chicago kid, I loved Lou Henson's Flying Illini teams in the 1980s, with guys like Marcus Liberty, Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson. Lou had Simeon and King High Schools feeding him the best preps in the country, but when it mattered he couldn't coach a Porsche to turn right if he was holding the wheel. It was heartbreaking to be the best on signing day and an upset special come March.
In fact, what makes March so maddening is how important smart coaching really is. It's easy to win in your conference when you're a sharp recruiter and know your opponents (Hi, Coach Cal!) It's harder to win tournament games when you have no more than five days—and sometimes as little as 48 hours—to scout a team you've never seen and then gameplan for it. The tournament is perfect for exposing true geniuses and coaching frauds.
So the first question I had for the wiseguys was: Which coaches do you trust the most—and the least—come tourney time?
One of the people I asked was Edward Golden, who runs Handicapper.net (aka Right Angle Sports). A wiseguy I trust has been raving about Golden because he's been right on 62% of his totals bets that past two seasons. Golden is only 35, but he's an old school info guy who believes in immersing himself in coverage, knowing each team ten deep. If a defensive stopper is lost to injury, Golden has studied that guy's backup, and understands how to adjust his bet.
I also called Sal Selvaggio, the boss at Madduxsports.com. Sal, 29, was betting baseball before he could drive and started selling his picks online when he was 22. He's a new breed numbers guy who talks about variances and stats and, a couple years ago won the Ultimate Handicapping Challenge, an online contest amongst Internet handicappers.
Between the two of them, their "Trust" and "Don't Trust" lists were remarkably similar, and had a few shockers. Keep them handy come selection Sunday, when you're thinking about who's ripe for an upset and who's a good bet to survive the early rounds of madness:
1. Ben Howland, UCLA: "UCLA rarely plays two bad games in a row," says Golden. "It rarely gets swept, it always plays good defense and is smart with the ball. When he has extra time to prepare, Howland does very well."
2. Stew Morrill, Utah State: "Good coaches usually fall into the same category," says Selvaggio. "They run a good offense, play good defense and may not have the talent their opponents have. Morrill is one of these guys, along with Dana Altman at Creighton."
3. Tim Floyd, USC: "Surprising, I know. But I like what he's done," says Golden, who was backed up by Selvaggio. "He is not scared of playing Mickey Mouse defenses, he'll throw a box and one out there. I like that he is willing to take risks and it will reap benefits."
1. Trent Johnson, LSU: "You might look at LSU's record and think, wow, this team is really good," says Golden. "But the SEC is down this year. At Stanford Johnson had loads of talent but his teams never improved and always underachieved."
2. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke: "Teams that get upset in the tournament normally can't play half-court basketball. My two biggest tournament bets the past two years were fading Duke. Against VCU and Anthony Grant in 2007, that was stealing. Same with Belmont last year. Other teams like Duke: Florida, Tennessee, Kansas, Mizzou, Syracuse and Nova."
3. Mark Few, Gonzaga: "It used to be Gonzaga didn't get big-time recruits and relied on chemistry, but its recruiting has been so strong lately. Now they just run up and down the court without buying into defense. For the amount of credit Few gets, his teams have underachieved in the tourney."
Hopefully, now that you've been warned, you won't do the same.
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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.