"Big Dance" Tops March Wagering Menu

Whoever coined the phrase, "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb" couldn't have been a fan of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, which roars into arenas, living rooms, wagering outlets and onto computer screens this month. The "Big Dance," as its known, tips off March 16, steaming through 63 games until the nets are cut down at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, April 3.

Other championship events, such as the Super Bowl, may generate more action but in totality, the 63-game single-elimination tournament that is "March Madness" is as much a feast for the wagering glutton as there is on the betting menu.

Of course, The Greek Sports Book will have blanket wagering coverage of the event, offering pointspreads, money lines and totals on every game, in addition to future book odds to win each regional as well as the national title.

The NCAA Tournament distinguishes itself in several meaningful ways from the collegiate hardwood regular season. Understanding these subtle handicapping factors can be crucial to formulating a winning strategy:

Getting to the Point: If it's difficult to have a successful regular season campaign absent competent play at pointguard, then it's darn near impossible in the tournament. The added pressure of each game, where elimination menacingly hovers like a guillotine, requires a cool customer at the point. A pointguard not only must take care of the ball against types of defenses he may not have faced during the regular season, but controls tempo, scores, finds his teammates and disrupts the opposition's attack.

Here's a baker's dozen of teams with superior players at the point:

Alabama: Ronald Steele had a 5:2 assist/turnover ratio as a freshman.
Alabama-Birm.: Carldell Johnson is ranked in both steals and assists.
Connecticut: Marcus Williams spearheads the potent Huskies attack.
Illinois: Dee Brown was the Big 10 Player of the Year last year.
Iowa: Jeff Horner is among the nation's leaders in assists this season.
Iowa State: Will Blalock not only handles the ball but plays defense.
Memphis: Darius Washington was a Freshman All-America last season.
Notre Dame: Chris Quinn made a smooth transition from shooting guard.
Pittsburgh: Versatile Carl Krausser takes the heat off Pitt's big men.
Stanford: Chris Hernandez goes for his third All-Pac-10 first-team nod.
Texas: Just a sophomore, Daniel Gibson reminds some of T.J. Ford.
UCLA: Jordan Farmar was best of Pac-10 freshmen guards last season.
Villanova: Randy Foye averaged 20 PPG in last year's NCAA tournament.

Defense Department: It's easy to win if your team is shooting well but good teams can survive an accuracy drought because they play inspired defense. That's especially important in the tournament where a single defeat means elimination. However, teams that are nationally ranked in scoring defense aren't necessarily superior defensive teams because low scoring often can be a product of a slowdown attack. A better way to evaluate a team's defensive prowess is to examine their opposition's field goal percentage.

Bucknell, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kansas State, LSU, Memphis, NC State, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, St. John's, Texas, Winthrop and Xavier are among the teams that have held their opponents under 40 percent accuracy this season.

And while defense surely requires talent and athleticism, mostly it's about desire. Not surprisingly then, you'll often find that teams that play good defense have coaches who not only can teach the Xs and Os of denial but also have the ability to motivate their troops.

Crime Pays: Teams can hide some of their shooting, rebounding, ball-handling and execution shortcomings if they're able to flourish in the open court and get easy baskets. One way to do that is to steal the ball from your opponents. Teams that have been adept at larceny this season include Alabama-Birmingham, Arizona, Clemson, Colorado, Duke, George Washington, Houston, Penn, Tennessee and Winthrop.

Security First: The other side of the steal is the turnover. With each possession so precious, teams that limit turnovers often live to play another game in the tournament. Air Force, Akron, Boston College, Cincinnati, Georgetown, Samford, Temple, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Xavier are among the hoop outfits that have been particularly adept at holding onto the basketball this season.

Three-mendous: It's often an all-or-nothing strategy but teams that live by the three-point shot not only sometimes die by it but sometimes wipe out huge deficits (or build big leads) and score the upset. A team that can shoot the trey always is dangerous, especially against a weak foul-shooting team that is trying to manage a lead.

Teams with overall good three-point shooting, or outfits that boast one or more deadeye gunners from beyond the arc include Air Force (43 percent), Alabama-Birmingham (Marvett McDonald), Connecticut (Rashad Anderson), (Duke (J.J. Reddick), Florida (Lee Humphrey), Houston (Oliver Lafayette), Indiana (Robert Vaden), NC State (38.3 percent), Notre Dame (Colin Falls), Ohio State (41.4 percent), Samford (J. Robert Merritt), San Diego State (Ross DeRogatis), Tennessee (Chris Lofton), Utah State (Jaycee Carroll), Villanova (Allan Ray), and West Virginia (Mike Gansey and Kevin Pittsnogle).

Cashing in on Charity: How many times have you seen it where a team guns threes then fouls in an effort to trade three points for one or two? But teams that build a lead often hold on to that advantage if they're able to convert their attempts from the charity stripe.

Using 75 percent as a sort of Mendoza Line, teams that were hitting at or above that percentage include Air Force, Cincinnati, Duke, Gonzaga, Michigan, Michigan State, Rutgers and St. John's.

A quartet of other factors, not specifically related to individual teams, also can conspire to work in favor of the player:

Time: The old adage that bookmakers only have to be wrong once for bettors to take advantage of them was never truer than during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. With the Selection Committee forced to wait until Sunday afternoon before announcing the Tournament's pairings and brackets, price makers and bet takers only have about three hours to dispense 32 pointspreads and an equal number of totals to a wagering public that is eager to attack those numbers.

Given the time pressure and the inherent complexity involved in setting spreads for a number of obscure teams, sometimes errors can occur. The advantage for the player is that while bookmakers must post prices on every game, the gambler gets to pick his spots, choosing only the most advantageous matchups.

Mix and Match: Oddsmakers usually employ Power Ratings, a numerical assessment that helps them establish a working pointspread. But what happens when a team, because it never or rarely is on the board during the regular season, doesn't have a Power Rating? In those cases, price makers often are flying in the dark.

For example, when Kentucky played Eastern Kentucky in an opening round game last year, bookmakers opened the known commodity, the Kentucky Wildcats, as a 20-point favorite. Gamblers thought otherwise and bet the underdog, bringing the number down to 16. They were right, too, as Kentucky won, 72-64, but failed to cover.

On the other hand, in another opening round encounter from last year's tournament, books established North Carolina as a 28-point favorite over Oakland. Gamblers couldn't find any flaws in that line and the game drew balanced wagering. And guess what happened? North Carolina won by exactly 28 points, 96-68, resulting in a push at most venues.

The point is, when it comes to a matchup of a traditional power against a second or third tier team that probably hasn't been on the board all year, there's margin for a price making error. Players who recognize those mistakes can place a wager with a high likelihood of success.

Out of Site: Theoretically, all NCAA Tournament games are played at neutral sites. But would Illinois have even made it to the Final Four if last year's Mideast Regional were not played at the Allstate Arena in Chicago, a snowball's throw (135 miles) from Champaign? Check those brackets! While not technically playing at home, some teams will enjoy regional advantages that could spell the difference in a tight game, as it probably did for Illinois in a tense 90-89 overtime victory over Arizona in Chicago last March.

Hedging: Fortunate is the bettor who still has a few live contenders among his future book tickets. Holding stubs on a handful of teams provides the player with the versatility to hedge his future book bets. One method is to wager against his future book teams on the money line. Another is to make plays on other teams to win various regions.

Odds and Ends: Here is a pointspread review of the 2005 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Interestingly, while underdogs enjoyed a solid advantage overall, favorites covered the last three games of the Big Dance, the semi-finals and the championship confrontation:

Games Favorite Underdog Push Over Under Push
63 25 36 2 26 36 1

North Carolina, the 13/2 future book favorite, won the championship.