How To Bet On The First Round Of The NCAA Tourney: West Region

  • Matt Rudnitsky

You should fill out a March Madness Bracket (or seven of them, if you’re one of those assholes). They’re fun. But you know you likely won’t win, and there’s a decent chance you’ll be screwed after one or two rounds. But there’s a way to ensure excitement, and if you’re smart, make str8 ca$h even if you get plenty of games wrong. That would be betting on individual games, which is fun and will have you cheering for meaningless baskets in long-decided games. Yay, degeneratism.

Here’s my first round primer for the West Region, where I will do my best to help you not lose money betting on the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It is easy to lose money if you don’t spend sufficient time analyzing matchups. While you were out contributing to society, I was researching the March Madness gambling lines. I stimulate the economy, too.

Note: The NCAA Tournament is very hard to bet on. Honestly, there’s more value in the tournaments that nobody watches (NIT, CBI, etc.). But we will be watching, so let’s do our best to profit. It can be done, if we put our minds to it.

1 Gonzaga (-21.5) vs. 16 Southern University

KenPom ranking: Gonzaga (4), Southern (170)

Gonzaga lost at Butler by one and vs. Illinois by 11. Both teams had success with 3-pointers. The Bulldogs are 74th in opponent’s 3PT%, but just 314th in the ratio of 3-point shots allowed. The prevention of 3-point attempts is a much better indicator of 3-point defense than opponent shooting percentage. So, the Zags weakness appears to be 3-point defense. Aside from that, they’re balanced and scary, despite their lack of a marquee win (their best wins are their trio of triumphs over overmatched St. Mary’s).

Southern is an odd statistical team. They are good at shooting threes, and awful at shooting twos. They are second in the country in 2-point defense and second in opponent’s effective FG%.

There is no reason to think Southern will be the first 16-seed to knock off a 1-seed, but there is a reason to think this poorly-named University will stay within the number. Their one offensive strength matches up with Gonzaga’s one defensive weakness. KenPom has the spread at 19. Make some threes, Southern, and you should cover. Even though you’ll probably lose. Badly.

ATS Pick: Southern +21.5
Bracket Pick: Gonzaga

8 Pittsburgh (-4.5) vs. 9 Wichita State

KenPom ranking: Pitt (7), Wichita St. (33)

Pittsburgh is a really weird team, statistically. They’re an 8-seed, so the selection committee ranked them somewhere between 29th and 32nd. As you can see, KenPom has them seventh. They have a lot of blowout wins (at G’town by 28!) and have stellar overall efficiency numbers despite their eight losses.

As you’d probably guess, KenPom probably overrates them and the committee probably underrated them. The Panthers are an elite offensive rebounding team (4th in OREB%) and an awful free throw shooting team, which could kill them in a close tournament game. They don’t call it March Madness because games are blowouts with no late game free throws. Aside from those two areas, Pitt is good at everything, but neither great nor bad at anything.

Wichita State is actually a very similar team, though obviously less efficient. They too are elite offensive rebounders (18th in OREB%). There are a few main statistical differences between these two teams: Wichita State is elite at preventing offensive rebounds (6th nationally, which is a huge advantage here), but they are worse at both preventing and forcing turnovers. Also, Wichita State is worse at 3-pointers, though neither team is good at them. The Shockers struggle with free throws, too. WSU plays faster than the crawling Panthers, but they still play slowly.

With such similar profiles and two slow teams that miss free throws, it’s easy to like the underdog, plus a solid 4.5 points. You’re getting some value because of KenPom’s infatuation with Pitt (by the way, when I say KenPom, I mean his superb statistical model, not the man himself. I do not know his sexual preferences; I only know the sexual preferences of his model. KenPom wants to bang Pitt as intensely as they bang the offensive glass).

As for your bracket, I suppose you’ve got to trust Vegas and KenPom, but this could go either way.

ATS Pick: Wichita State +4.5
Bracket Pick: Pittsburgh

5 Wisconsin (-4.5) vs. 12 Ole Miss

KenPom ranking: Wisconsin (9), Ole Miss (34)

Wisconsin is another longtime sexual partner of KenPom’s. Their style of play has great chemistry with his model, as well as the regular season, yet hasn’t meshed with March Madness, for the most part. As for this game, it’s a massive contrast in styles.

When evaluating Wisconsin, there’s virtually no point in looking at their players. This is Bo Ryan vs. Mississippi, because Bo Ryan’s teams are simply Bo Ryan’s brain, cloned and put into relatively athletic, relatively tall bodies. They bore teams to death, playing suffocating defense. They wait ’til there is .1 second left on the shot clock on offense and put up poor shots. That isn’t their offensive reputation, but it’s true. They are bad shooters (140th in effective FG%). They can’t shoot free throws and their highest-usage player (Ryan Evans) shoots 42% on his chuckle-worthy jump-shot free throws. They win with soul-sucking defense, which they do inexplicably well. There is a lifetime contract with the devil in there, somewhere.

Ole Miss is the complete opposite, a breakneck offense that somehow manages to be efficient. They are also an enigma. They don’t shoot well from 3-point land, yet they don’t turn the ball over despite their blistering pace. They also play decent defense and force steals fairly well. The Rebels went 1-1 against Florida. The Gators are essentially Wisconsin plus elite shooting ability, which means they are Wisconsin but actually worthy of the elite tag. If Ole Miss can beat Florida on a neutral court, as they did in the SEC tourney, I don’t see why they shouldn’t be able to keep within six points of the net-averse Badgers.

Note: Marshall Henderson gets a bad rap for being a chucker, but he actually is relatively efficient (57.4 TS%) despite his propensity to shoot with the frequency that Wisconsin players are labeled “hard-nosed.” (What is Bo Ryan putting on his players’ noses? It sounds illegal. Suspend that devilish man.)

ATS Pick: Ole Miss +6, confidently
Bracket Pick: Ole Miss, but mostly just because I can’t root for Wisconsin

4 Kansas State (-4.5) vs. 13 Boise State/LaSalle

KenPom ranking: Kansas State (30), Boise State (49), LaSalle (57)

Boise State is a slight favorite to beat LaSalle and play KSU. LaSalle is one of the best teams in the country at defending the 3-point shot against one of the best 3-point shooting teams in Boise. Should be interesting.

Kansas State almost inarguably the worst 4-seed in the tournament. They look ripe for an early exit, but I’m not sure either of these teams can beat the Wildcats. We’ll look into it more when the matchup is revealed, but I’d certainly lean KSU in my bracket, and possibly against the spread.

ATS Pick: I don’t know yet, man
Bracket Pick: Kansas State, most likely

4 Arizona (-4.5) vs. 13 Belmont

KenPom ranking: Arizona (19), Belmont (46)

Arizona is the big boy in this matchup, literally. They’re the fifth-tallest team in the tournament, according to effective height (via KenPom, of course). Belmont is the fourth-shortest.

But Belmont is an incredible shooting team — they’re second in effective FG% and first in 2PT% at an absurd 57.1%, though that second number may be because they take a ton of threes. They are great at forcing turnovers on defense with steals, but aside from that, their defense isn’t great.

The Bruins have the typical traits of a bracket buster (they force turnovers and shoot the lights out), but I’m not sure this is the right matchup.

As the height disparity suggests, Arizona should clean up on the offensive boards. Belmont will have immense trouble, there. Arizona is also good at preventing 3-pointers and their 2-point defense is good, which matches up well with Belmont’s absurd numbers.

I’m having trouble picking this in my bracket. I think the winner can get to the Elite 8. When in doubt, I guess, side with Vegas. And don’t bet.

ATS Pick: You don’t need to bet on every game, you know, man
Bracket Pick: Arizona, I think

3 New Mexico (-11.5) vs. 14 Harvard

KenPom ranking: New Mexico (17), Harvard (108)

New Mexico is somehow No. 2 in RPI, which is a meaningless stat, but people usually say it’s biased against teams like New Mexico, so that’s cool, I guess. The Mountain West was even the nation’s best conference based on RPI, which, again, is mostly meaningless but kinda cool. I’ve seen smart people pick New Mexico to reach the Final Four.

But the Lobos are very flawed. They can’t shoot. They’re mediocre in 3-point attempts and percentage, but they’re awful at 2-pointers (46.2%, 227th). The only reason they are pretty efficient on offense (46th) is that they get to the line a ton (10th), make their free throws (72.2%) and don’t turn the ball over much (46th). Their defense is elite, overall, mainly because of obscenely effective 2-point defense (7th). But they don’t force turnovers and they have awful 3-point defense. They played well in a tough conference and have a couple of solid non-conference wins (Davidson, UConn and at Cincy), but nothing especially impressive. St. Louis beat them easily, albeit on the road. I think they’re overseeded as a three and not really a Final Four threat.

Harvard is one of the weaker teams in the tourney, but they have some interesting pieces for a one game situation. They shoot a ridiculous 40.1% on threes (8th) and 52.5% on twos (21st). Their offense is middling overall, because they cough the ball up a ton (246th in TO%) and they can’t rebound on offense. They shoot as well as anyone in the tourney and get to the line at a ridiculous rate. If shots are falling, they will be tough. If not, they could get annihilated. On defense, they defend the 3-pointer exceptionally and will get some steals, but they’re bad at everything else.

KenPom has this game at New Mexico -10. I think this is far from a lock, but I think it’s a great matchup for Harvard. They’ll likely jack up more threes than normal (they don’t normally rely on them too much), and if they fall, an outright upset is very possible. Against a team with awful 3-point defense — opponents get a whopping 37.2% of their points on threes against UNM (2nd-worst nationally) — the Lobos should be scared.

New Mexico has a huge height advantage, which scares me, but I really like this pick against the spread. New Mexico isn’t the type of team that blows teams out often. I’m much less confident in the outright upset, but I think it has a shot. I’m not sure it’s worth picking Harvard in your bracket since they’d probably lose in the next round, but I live life on the edge.

ATS Pick: Harvard +11.5
Bracket Pick: Harvard, but not all that confidently

7 Notre Dame (-1.5) vs. 10 Iowa State

KenPom ranking: Notre Dame (31), Iowa State (37)

We’ve got another weird contrast of styles here. There’s Notre Dame’s Wisconsin-that-can-shoot, plodding, low turnover, efficient offense, and then there’s Iowa State, also a great shooting team, but they play fast. Neither team plays defense, though the Irish do defend the 3-point line well (47th in opponent 3PA/FGA), which could be huge. Both teams are very good 3-point shooters, but Iowa State relies heavily on the three, while Notre Dame does not.

From that pure matchup standpoint, Notre Dame seems to have an edge. But both teams are foreign to the other team’s style of play. I’m not really sure what happens here.

The Cyclones have more potential to make a deep run, because if they’re shots are falling, they can beat almost anyone. They’re seriously lethal. I don’t see a reason to bet this game, but I hate Notre Dame and like ISU, so that’s my bracket pick. Wait, I forgot to make a Manti Te’o joke. I heard Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was guarding 46% 3-point shooter, Tyrus McGee. They’re screwed!

ATS Pick: why are you asking me
Bracket Pick: Iowa State because f*** you, Brian Kelly

2 Ohio State (-14) vs. 15 Iona

KenPom ranking: Ohio State (5), Iona (96)

I was tempted to pick Iona here, because I love Michigan and people call Momo Jones, Momo, even though his name is Lamont. How quirky is that?! But then I realized that Aaron Craft would be guarding him, and Aaron Craft sticks with you like herpes. Aaron Craft is sticky herpes, and even though Momo Jones is the nation’s third-leading scorer, he will find it hard to score with herpes (see what I did there?).

As for the spread, this is either Ohio State or nothing. The Buckeyes will probably score 17,000 points on Iona’s defense, which resembles a piece of Swiss cheese after it has already been consumed. Or Manti Te’o’s girlfriend (huzzah!).

OSU may be a good bet, here, but Iona’s offense is very, very good, and they could potentially keep up, even against OSU’s stifling defense.

ATS Pick: Pass, lean Ohio State -14
Bracket Pick: Ohio State