I received a nice PM yesterday from a regular here at the MajorWager.com. He asked some questions about handicapping March Madness. The answer was going to be article length...so I decided to make it an article!
First, here's what was asked in the private message. I won't use the sender's name, but he's welcome to identify himself in the Mess Hall thread for this article if he wishes. Not an issue either way. A lot of people like discussing strategies for handicapping sports. Some prefer to do so anonymously.
"BG, just wondering what indicators you like to consider for March Madness, if certain factors are more important than others. Sometimes, people talk about teams coming on strong towards the end of the year. For example, it looks like Georgia Tech is starting to gel, but they're (like a lot of college teams) a squad that plays so much better at home than on the road. From your experience, how does that play out in the tournament? Do teams like that tend to play poorly on neutral sites? UVA is also a team like that...and they're intriguing because of their guard play, which talking heads always seem to emphasize as crucial in a championship run. Do you agree w/ that? I was thinking about focusing on teams that have had big road wins this year, like A&M and Va Tech. So I guess I'm curious if you noticed a common thread among teams that have done well in previous tournaments...you seem to be able to parse out variables and figure out which ones have statistical significance."
I've done a lot of research regarding March Madness over the years. I've studied possibilities from all directions...popular and contrarian...what coaches say and what people who think coaches are idiots say...what Al Maguire said and what Dick Vitale still says. To me, it can all be boiled down to this:
NOTHING WORKS ALL THE TIME, HARDLY ANYTHING WORKS MORE THAN HALF THE TIME, AND THE PUNDITS HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY'RE TALKING ABOUT!
Al Maguire used to know what he was talking about, even if he couldn't get a lot of the names right. I miss him more with each passing year.
Any truism you've ever heard about what wins in the month of March has some element of truth to it. The problem is, if you make a list of all the teams who qualify under any sort of key indicator, just as many will lose as will win.
Let's start with the "fast finishers" like Georgia Tech from the PM. Have teams who gelled late gone on to do well in their conference tournaments and Big Dance? Absolutely. But...
*If you make a list of ALL the teams who are playing their best ball right now, just as many will be flat as a pancake in their first tournament game as will win and cover.
*If you arrange your office pool brackets around the theme that hot teams will go deep, you'll find that a couple do, but so many don't that your brackets are devastated by the second week.
*If you do the opposite and make a list of ice cold teams who are playing their worst ball of the year, many will play great! In fact, this has arguably been the better indicator in recent seasons. Teams playing poorly late in the regular season can put things together in their conference tournament (as George Mason did for a few days in the Colonial tournament this past weekend). Florida was sluggish and inconsistent late last season before running the table in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
Is there an edge for handicappers? To me, it's probably worth your energy to find talented teams who have been suffering pointspread doldrums the past few weeks. People will assume a slump when the team was just lacking motivation. Sure, there will be some hot teams that stay hot. Maybe Georgia Tech will have a great ACC tourney. Recent history has shown me though that if you list ALL the hot teams coming into the week, you'll be surprised by how many lay eggs. You'll be asking "what happened to these guys" about five different times a day. This will cancel out the wins you're getting from hot teams that stay hot.
Let's move on to the home/road split. I used to spend hours looking at everybody's won/loss records, ATS records, and margin averages at home and on the road. There were certainly some years back in the 1980's where this was valuable (pre-internet, it took FOREVER to log results and calculate the averages!). I've been stunned in recent years about how little this applied to neutral site tournaments this decade. Teams with lousy road records can still hit some shots in a tournament game. Teams who have posted several clutch performances on the road are more dangerous as dogs in the later rounds than they are as early round favorites.
Here, as with so many other strategies, selective memory comes into play. You'll notice when a bad road team plays horribly in a first round tournament game. The TV announcers will talk about it as being a key factor. But, if you make a list of ALL poor road teams, you'll be surprised how many play well and cover in their tournament games. If you make a list of ALL strong road teams, you'll be surprised how many play flat in the tournaments.
Those were two factors mentioned in the PM. Let's talk about some others:
GUARD PLAY: you hear all the time that great guard play is critical to winning in tournaments. If you make a list of ALL the teams with quality guards, you'll be stunned by how many play poorly in tournaments. Often the key is a guy who grew up watching Allen Iverson, thinking that good guard play means launching 20 forced shots because "being the man" is more important than winning. A star who's a good guard in league play can be a bad guard in tournaments.
I will say though that bad guard play during the regular season is a pretty good "go against" indicator in the tournaments. Turnover prone teams have to shoot lights out to win and advance. This is very hard to do more than once in a row. So...it's worth knowing who the teams with bad guard play are. I think you'll be disappointed trying to base your selections on good guard play.
REBOUNDING: this has always been one of my favorites. And, I still pay a lot of attention to it in the tournament boxscores. It's not as big as it used to be for a couple of reasons. First, teams across the sport are much better at crashing the boards and running down lose balls than they used to be. Some game announcers were talking about this over the weekend. Boxing out is part of the picture, chasing the ball is the other. In the 1990's, tall rebounding teams did have some nice edges handicappers could exploit. Now, it seems speed is just as important in this category. A lot of fast teams are making up for what they lack in height.
Second, rebounding doesn't matter if the opponents are draining all of their shots. The haphazard randomness of shooting percentages has become so extreme in recent years, that rebounding strength is no guarantee of anything in a 40-minute game.
SENIOR LEADERSHIP: two words, Carmelo Anthony. He led Syracuse to a national championship as a freshman. Many underclassmen are key contributors on championship teams. TV announcers will talk all day long about the importance of senior leadership if a veteran team is winning some games. But, again, if you make a list of ALL the teams with senior leadership, you'll be surprised at how many fail. If you decide to go against teams with a lot of youth, you'll be yelling at the TV all month.
Look...here's my story and I'm sticking to it. I spent seemingly the entire month of March last year propounding this theory...while everyone argued as the "consensus" picks from avid fans and handicappers turned out to be loser after loser.
What's going to happen in any given 40-minute game is RANDOM. Once you get down to the top 40-50 teams, anything can happen in a game. The impact of three-point scoring in a game is HUGE, yet nobody has any control over whether or not they can hit three-pointers on a given day. The impact of how referees call a game is HUGE, yet nobody has any control over the referees they get, or how those guys are going to call a game.
Last year I called it "The Coin Flip Theory." We had a lot of debate about it. By that, I mean I debated about 10-15 different people through the month about whether or not you should just take the points in all competitive games because the results were so random. We used 1-6 as the pointspread range, and the dogs continued to come in at a very profitable rate. A study done for the prior five seasons or so showed the same thing. Competitive balance is such in college basketball right now that tournament results are randomized. It might as well be a coin flipping contest. It might as well be the "Rock, Paper, Scissors" contest they ran for charity at the World Series of Poker a couple of years ago.
It didn't matter that a lot of sharps and intelligent fans thought Memphis had big edges over UCLA in the Elite Eight. UCLA won 50-45 as a 3-point underdog. It didn't matter that a lot of the same guys LOVED the Tigers of LSU over UCLA in the next round. UCLA won 59-45 as a 2-point underdog. It didn't matter that UCONN was going to crush George Mason, or that Tennessee was a steal at a short price against Winthrop. I could talk about the coin flip theory until I was blue in the face...and people would still lay out the case for favorites round after round.
To be clear, I'm not saying I thought UCLA had obvious edges over Memphis or LSU...or that George Mason was a lock to beat UCONN. My point is that what seem to be edges when handicapping college hoops are IRRELEVANT in a one-game showdown because anything can happen in 40 minutes. Every game is pick-em. Well, at least every game with a line in the 0-6 range is actually a true pick-em, as are some games with even higher spreads.
The ONLY key I can find right now that works is to take underdogs in the 1-6 range and hope the math takes care of you. Hot teams can lose...cold teams can win...veteran teams can lose...inexperienced teams can win...rebounding teams can lose...hustling little guys can win...super powers often lose in their conference tournaments anyway because they want to save something for the Dance.
In terms of handicapping, it's blasphemous. But, the way to handicap March Madness is to not handicap it. As long as the perception in the media and with gamblers is that the perceived differences between teams matter, the value will be in betting that they don't matter. This has been as clear as can be in recent seasons. It's also a lot less time consuming!
We'll monitor this again for you here at the website this year. Here's the "non-handicapping" strategy that many of you will recall from last year's debates:
*Take all underdogs of 1-6 points in the "big six" conference tournaments (ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, Pac 10). The upper divisions of all six leagues are very competitive, and the games are being played on neutral courts.
*Take all underdogs of 1-6 points in the Big Dance
Personally, I don't know of any handicappers who bettered what the dogs did last year against the spread with their own handicapping strategies over the same volume of selections...and there definitely aren't any who bettered what the dogs in that range have done over the last several years. It's like trying to outperform the S&P 500 when the S&P 500 does well enough on its own.
In terms of the media...it doesn't matter what Dick Vitale says about the games...or what Digger Phelps says about the games...or what Jay Bilas says about the games...or what Billy Packer says about the games...or what Jim Nantz says about the games. If you made a list of everything those guys said last year when the brackets were announced, you'd have to wonder how any of them kept their jobs. The volume of nonsense was staggering. And the performance of their predictions should have been humiliating.
And, if YOU, dear reader, have a couple of teams you think have a great chance of reaching the Final Four, you're not getting it either. It's one big coin flipping contest. Anyone remember the Final Four from that Rock, Paper, Scissors event? Think they'd get there again if they ran the tournament over one more time?
I wish I could give you some edges to exploit. Particularly when people send friendly emails! The best minds I know of in this sport kept pounding small favorites last year because of perceived handicapping edges. Paddling upstream. Turn your boat around and see where the water takes you.