Behind the Bets

Levance Fields' leadership is a big reason the Panthers might get past the Round of 16 this season. Getty Images

The world is full of maxims: "Above all, try something" (FDR), "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" (Bill, my Camp Horseshoe counselor), and "No regrets" (Tim Riggins).

College basketball is no different. What do pro bettors have if not hard and fast rules that guide them through the kaleidoscope of moods exhibited by 18 year olds playing in front of 20,000 people? These are the handrails on the roller coaster. Without them, even the handicapper with the strongest liver would turn green every time the ball is tipped.

The tourney, however, truly is a second season. And a new set of rules applies when breaking down every single match-up. For the third and final installment of BTB's mini-stimulus bill (other parts: here and here), designed to pad your ego and your bank account, I've asked several of the wisest wiseguys I know—including column regulars like Alan Boston, Sal from Madduxsports, Edward from Right Angle, as well as a couple guys who like to share everything but their names—to give me their March Madness Maxims.

In no particular order of importance, here they are:

Guards bring the goods: It used to be a team with senior guards is a better bet against the team featuring a high-profile big man. Even though senior guards are a rarity now, this rule stands the test of time. Anyone remember Kansas' big man last year? Didn't think so. But you remember Mario Chalmers keeping his team cool and confident and hitting the game-tying shot, right? By the time March rolls around, there are no freshmen anymore. Every player on the court has proved they've got game. The good guards, says Sal, "sees things develop before they happen. He can take a coaches vision in the huddle and act it out. He can save a team timeouts. When the opponent goes on a run, he can calm a team down and run a good offensive play giving them the best chance to stop the bleeding. Just as he knows when to push it and go for the jugular. A bad point guard panics when the opponent goes on a run, takes bad shots, forces passes, goes for too much on the defensive end leaving his defense in trouble."

• Good guard teams to watch: UNC, Pitt, North Dakota State.

Every game is a road game: Edward at Right Angle takes this one very seriously. If he's facing a choice between two teams playing close to home, he logs onto Google Maps and charts the miles from the stadium to each school's campus. "The games are so pressure packed that even a minor advantage in location and/or number of fans can give a team a big boost," he says. That said, the majority of teams are getting on a plane, sleeping in a hotel, taking a bus to the stadium and eating at fast food joints. Except for the food, nothing will feel like home. So what you're looking for are the cagers who have a winning road record. Do they have any quality road wins or even quality road efforts? "One of the most unique things about handicapping tournaments is that you are getting the road version of both teams," says Edward. "And there is always a healthy number of teams with a very poor road resumé that make it to the postseason."

• The top 25 teams with the best road records (all one loss): Memphis, Michigan State, UConn, Louisville.

• The top 25 teams with the worst road records: Syracuse, Purdue, Duke, Mizzou, Florida State (all had at least four losses)

Think free throws: Okay, this one isn't so much about who's going to win the game, but it could leave you with some bonus bucks in your pocket. Back in the day the wiseguy's easiest bet in the tourney was taking the 15th or 16th seeded underdog in the first round. Those were usually pretty good teams no one knew about playing the big, scary Final Four favorites. But then everyone got cable and the Internet and turned into something resembling a sharp. Not even Belmont can't sneak up on anyone. First round spreads that were, a few years ago, 30 points, are now no more than 18 or 19. "It's amazing how much the lines have tightened up," bookmaking legend Jimmy Vaccaro told me. These days the bet to play is first and second half totals. And for that, think free throws. Early in the game, expect teams to be tight, shots may not fall, there will be turnovers and sloppy play. You'll want to take the under. But in the second half, as Jimmy says, "take that over. Teams shoot so many free throws, the points start to pile up." Follow these rules, and so will your cash.

• Best free throw shooting teams in the top 25: North Carolina, Connecticut, Duke, UCLA, Syracuse.

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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.