Expanding sports betting legalization has furthered gambling conversations but the NCAA tournament bracket has remained a staple for decades. Even before the landmark 2018 Supreme Court ruling, the Big Dance annually generated action and excitement. Much like Super Bowl props, the bracket enables even casual fans to discuss a form of gambling.
Brackets are routinely busted, as handicapping the tournament is a different animal, particularly when you compare it with the most recent games. Schools are coming off conference tournaments, which involve familiar opponents and playing on consecutive days. However, the tourney creates foreign matchups and environments, lending itself to more unpredictable outcomes.
Plus, the playing field is becoming more level, as demonstrated by the betting odds. Since 2005, we have seen only three point spreads of at least 30 points. In the decade prior to that, there were 15 such spreads, including a 46-point line in 1999.
"College basketball is just so much more balanced now. There are more teams that can compete on a nightly basis," Ed Salmons from the Westgate SuperBook told ESPN, speaking to the growing usage of the 3-pointer. "A lot of teams that didn't make the tourney are more than capable of winning a couple games."
Another indication is the advancement of lower seeds. A 15-seed has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the past two tournaments, including Saint Peter's last year reaching the Elite Eight. The Big Dance lends itself to Cinderella and money-line paydays, which translate to outlier betting behavior.
"The public will certainly embrace a few tournament underdogs. Once in a while the public will back a 'dog in other sports but not like this. If you're flipping channels during the regular season, you will stumble across Drake or Oral Roberts, so the public is more familiar with these lower-profile schools," Salmons said.
Watching the opening weekend at a Vegas sportsbook is a rite of passage that every fan must experience at least once. I will do it this weekend for about the tenth time. And here are my top plays, based on intel from oddsmakers and sharp bettors, that I have bet:
Odds from Caesars Sportsbook unless otherwise noted.
(12) VCU vs. (5) Saint Mary's (-4, 123)
Friday 2 p.m. ET, MVP Arena, Albany, New York
The Gaels showed their true colors in their last game, getting blown out by Gonzaga. I realize the metrics like them but I do not. The Atlantic-10 is a superior conference to the West Coast so I have to roll with the Rams.
Kezirian's pick: VCU (+4)
(15) Vermont vs. (2) Marquette (-11, 144.5)
Friday, 2:45 p.m. ET Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
The Catamounts are not as talented as recent teams but they have enough shooting to keep this inside the number. The metrics love the Golden Eagles but sometimes you have to roll with a double-digit underdog that can get hot from deep. Keep in mind Shaka Smart has lost five straight games in the big dance, including a huge upset with Texas to Abilene Christian.
Kezirian's pick: Vermont (+11)
(14) Montana State vs. (3) Kansas State (-8, 139.5)
Friday 9:40 p.m. ET, Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, North Carolina
The Wildcats are battle-tested by finishing third in the stout Big 12 and the Bobcats might be primed for a beatdown. They were blown out by Oregon and Arizona and also lost to below-average teams.
Kezirian's pick: Kansas State (-8)
(9) Florida Atlantic vs. (8) Memphis (-2, 153)
Friday, 9:20 p.m. ET Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
The Owls are a solid team, but the Tigers have elite athleticism and are playing like a top-10 team down the stretch. Kendric Davis is terrific and should be the difference-maker.
Kezirian's pick: Memphis (-2)
A 14-seed will not win a first-round game (-120): This is a fun wager that provides action on four Friday games, as I think the 3-seeds will survive fairly easily. Kansas State and Gonzaga should cruise, and I do not think UC Santa Barbara has the goods to beat Baylor. Kenesaw State has a path to the upset but ultimately Xavier should get the win.