The first weekend of the NCAA tournament will be remembered for a long time.
There were historic upsets, strong teams going down every day, with underdogs dominating against the spread, and bettors wondering what happened to their bankrolls.
The beauty is, this crazy tournament has 15 games left. We'll break down the Sweet 16 from a gambling perspective with Yahoo Sports' Frank Schwab and Scott Pianowski in two parts, with Saturday's set of regional semifinals first:
What was your biggest surprise on this half of the bracket?
FS: So many to choose from. It seems weird to not say No. 15 Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16, but the one game I watched that blew me away was Loyola Chicago over Illinois. Not that it was too surprising to see Loyola win (anyone who understands advanced metrics knew Loyola was horribly under-seeded), but it was the absolute domination of a good Illinois team that shocked me. The Ramblers were the better team in every way that day. Illinois was never a factor in that game, and I don't believe for a second Illinois was some fraud. The Illini were very good, worthy of a No. 1 seed, and Loyola destroyed them. Oregon State has been on a great run and either Syracuse or Houston are obviously capable, but eighth-seeded Loyola is my pick to win the region (the Ramblers are +170 at BetMGM to go to the Final Four, Houston is the betting favorite at +115).
SP: First let me say how frustrating it is to be treading water on my ledger despite it being an underdog-heavy tournament, especially against the number. This is the bull market where you and I are supposed to clean up. The only thing I've cleaned up so far is my office carpet — picking up the ripped-up shreds of my bracket, destroyed on Friday.
Then again, I'm not down, either. And there's still time to make this a March to remember.
I wish the Ramblers were slotted anywhere but where they were. While I'll admit to having modest knowledge of a bunch of non-power programs, that's one school I was sure was good. All along, I expected Loyola to give Illinois a game. Problem was, I rated Illinois the second-best team in the country. There was nothing fluky about that result Sunday — the Ramblers owned that game for 40 minutes. That was a tail-kicking.
Oral Roberts shocked me in Round 1 but the result itself was pure. The Golden Eagles went 45 minutes with Ohio State, a No. 2 seed, a publicly backed team (I'm raising my hands) and somehow turned the ball over a piddly *six* times? So much for nerves. If you came from a different planet, you might take ORU for the higher seed in that game. At least I learned my lesson and punched ORU both ways (money line, ATS) in the second round.
Buddy Boeheim is a lot better than I thought he was. And isn't it funny how so many Syracuse teams are tourney disappointments when favored, but shock the world when underdogs? (Not looking at you, Carmelo.) Syracuse toying with San Diego State stunned me. Again, at least I learned from my mistake, and squeezed the Orange past Huggy Bear in Round 2.
Maybe I underestimated Jay Wright, too, not that Villanova has topped anyone great yet. But it raises the question — if a team has little NCAA tournament seeding to gain as it plays its conference tournament, is it better to lose early? Illinois and Ohio State played a 15-round heavyweight bout in a wonderfully entertaining Big Ten finale. Was it worth it? Did the extra gas spent wind up costing them in some way?
Perhaps this is confirmation bias at play, but I can't help but wonder.
Which double-digit seed can make an Elite Eight or even a Final Four?
FS: I know this sounds crazy as I say it, but why not Oral Roberts? The Golden Eagles check just about every box I want when I'm looking for a potential Cinderella from a one-bid league. They are the best free-throw shooting team in the country. They shoot threes very well. They covered and played well in four of five games against tournament teams in the regular season, and did not look intimidated in any way against Ohio State or Florida, even when the Gators were up double digits. As you pointed out, they don't turn the ball over either. It's a good, solid team that will never hand away points and we shouldn't be fooled by the "15" next to its name. I like Arkansas (my Final Four pick before the tournament started) but can see an upset happening.
I guess Oregon State, UCLA or Syracuse is probably the right answer to this question because of their power-conference status, but it just feels like this Oral Roberts team can keep it going for at least one more game.
SP: I am shocked the Golden Eagles are fetching 11.5 right now, per BetMGM (I will punch two tickets before I send this to you). This is not a team afraid of the moment and the big stage. If the Ohio State uniforms didn't spook them and the gap against Florida didn't shake them, what's going to get in their way now? Let's not complicate the betting rules for 2021 — if the game has a bloated spread and Gonzaga isn't involved, grab the spot on general principle. Surely that line is going to come down. This looks like another 40-minute rumble.
Loyola isn't a cuddly underdog anymore, of course, it's now a favorite. How do you feel about Oregon State +6.5? The Beavers figured it out during that shocking Pac-12 Tournament romp, and given how the entire tournament has surged since, I'm willing to further bump OSU in my power rankings. (We need a Bill Walton "Conference of Champions" simulcast for all of these games.) Both of us expected Oregon State to facilitate another one-and-done from Rick Barnes and Tennessee, but Cade Cunningham, the best player in America, didn't faze the Beavers either. The Ramblers look better on paper, but OSU can take a punch. I'm not saying the Beavers win, but I have to take the points.
It's a shame Syracuse can't ambush Houston in a short-turnaround game. The extra prep time is advantage, Cougars. I've been waiting for some team to exploit Syracuse on the offensive glass, and Houston is the No. 2 offensive rebounding team in the nation. Unless Buddy really is channeling Steph Curry this month, the Orange have finally hit their ceiling. Houston -6 is one piece of chalk I can live with.
FS: This is where the tournament gets tough: I have cashed many tickets on Oregon State, which is on an unbelievable run against the spread. But I also really like Loyola Chicago. It always stinks when two of your play-on teams face off, and I guess I'll take Loyola. It just feels wrong to go against the Beavers.
Is Baylor being overlooked a little?
FS: The attention of the first weekend went to all the upsets, and Gonzaga. Meanwhile, Baylor looked tremendous in two games and you didn't hear much about it. Before a midseason lull, it looked like a two-team race with Baylor and Gonzaga. That zero on the right side of Gonzaga's record is the reason the Bulldogs are the focus, and rightfully so. They're a great team with a great story. But the overwhelming odds on Gonzaga — seeing a team at +150 before the Sweet 16 starts is rare — has opened up some value on Baylor at +450. The Bears are still the same talented team that was co-favorite for a long time, and they wouldn't have to deal with Gonzaga until the title game. While Baylor is far from a sure thing to get that far, nobody on that side of the bracket really scares me. Illinois losing was a really big deal in this tournament. It cleared the path for the non-Gonzaga side of the bracket. I'll probably be grabbing some Baylor futures at this price. I don't see Villanova slowing them down on Saturday.
SP: I love that Baylor call. There the Bears are, No. 2 in KenPom and yet legitimately under the radar, as you outlined. We know they're the best 3-point shooting team in the country, and that also leads to a healthy share of offensive rebounds (despite being a team that's an eyelash undersized). They're well-coached, experienced. The funny thing about the Bears is that they're an ordinary free-throw team despite the marksmanship outside the arc. I guess if you're going to calibrate to 22 feet, you lose something at 15. (Imagine Baylor with the old-school 3-point line, these guys would be a pinball machine.)
A lot of words to basically agree. There's value here. I have a new ticket in the basket.
Any one game that stands out as your best bet for Saturday?
FS: I think we both are feeling good about Oral Roberts catching all those points, so I'll find another. Like you said before, I think Houston's strengths match up really well with Syracuse's weaknesses, particularly the Cougars' desire to crash the offensive glass. Houston is very good and I don't believe they'll have the normal struggles against Syracuse's zone with a week to prepare. The Cougars are probably more overlooked than Baylor because they play in a good but not marquee conference, but they're a quality team. I like that call by you. Houston -6 it is.
SP: Those are my two primary punches, Houston and ORU. Both already ticketed, with the idea that the line will move against us. I will probably take Oregon State, but not with any notable conviction or investment.
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