03/16/2009 11:00PM

NCAA focus shifts from 'bubble' to bracket


LAS VEGAS - There's nothing like March Madness in Las Vegas. Starting with this past Sunday's announcement of the field of 65 for the NCAA men's basketball tournament, oddsmakers were crunching the numbers to establish the point spreads and totals for the first-round games, and professional bettors were waiting to jump on any soft numbers they could find.

Even in this down economy, the sports books here are bracing for standing-room-only crowds as fans come from all over to be able to view and bet on the wall-to-wall basketball action.

As the tournament has drawn near, a lot of college basketball fans get drawn into the debate over "bubble teams" and then who got snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, but serious bettors only care about the actual matchups on the betting boards and not what coulda/shoulda been.

The NCAA, which would prefer people talk about the selection process instead of the odds, has often expressed its disdain for Las Vegas and the legal gambling that goes on here, but it's ironic that they provide the single most widespread and influential betting tool known to man: the tournament bracket.

The seedings are the most disguised handicap that I've ever seen. People in office pools that haven't watched a second of college basketball all year long can tell that the committee is saying that the lower-numbered seed is favored over the higher number.

For the most part, the selection committee does a pretty good job of this. The No. 1 seeds are all favored by more than 20 points in their first-round games (Louisville's game was off the board as of deadline as they await the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Alabama State and Morehead State, but they'll be at least that big of a favorite); the No. 2 seeds range from Oklahoma -17 vs. Morgan State to Duke -22 vs. Binghampton; the No. 3 seeds range from Kansas -10 vs. North Dakota State to Villanova -19 vs. American; and the No. 4 seeds from Washington -5 1/2 vs. Mississippi State (due to this No. 13 seed being the SEC conference tournament champ) to Gonzaga -12 vs. Akron.

The first big difference we see between the NCAA oddsmakers, er, selection committee, and the Vegas oddsmakers is in the Utah-Arizona matchup. Utah is the No. 5 seed in the Midwest Regional while Arizona - the target of a lot of criticism as many felt other bubble teams deserved to get in ahead of them - is the No. 12 seed. Despite the disparity in seedings, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, the firm that supplies odds to most of Nevada's legal sports books, sent out Arizona as a 1-point favorite. The books in Vegas as well as offshore went with that number and it has proven solid through early wagering, so the betting public is siding with the selection committee (or it could be a lack of confidence in Utah).

The rest of the 5-12 and the 6-11 games seem pretty well handicapped by the committee as they fall in line with the point spread, but the 7-10 matchups are an interesting case study. Texas is a 4-point favorite over Minnesota in the East Regional, and Clemson is -5 1/2 vs. Michigan in the South - so those are in line with expectations - but then LVSC made the West's No. 10 seed, Maryland, a 1-point favorite over No. 7 seed California and the Midwest's No. 10 seed, USC, a 1 1/2-point favorite over No. 7 Boston College. The books parted with LVSC by making Boston College a 1-point favorite, and early wagering has supported that decision (though the spread is still more in line with an 8-9 mathchup), but USC is now up to a 2-point favorite as a No. 10 seed.

In the 8-9 games, the spreads are all 3 1/2 points or less, but the one noticeable difference is that the East's No. 9 seed, Tennessee, is actually the 2-point favorite over No. 8 Oklahoma State.

Future-book odds updated

The selection committee named Big East champion Louisville as the top No. 1 seed, but while the future-book odds in Las Vegas agree with the top contenders, they differ on the top slot. After the brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, the Las Vegas Hilton posted its adjusted list with North Carolina as the 4-1 favorite. The MGM Mirage family of books had Pittsburgh the favorite at 7-2. Pitt wasn't even the second choice at the Hilton, which had Louisville at 5-1, then Pitt as the co-third choice with UConn at 7-1, and then Memphis at 12-1 and the quartet of Duke, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Syracuse at 15-1 (Syracuse is the only one in that group that isn't a No. 2 seed).

Handicapping with my bracket

The accompanying bracket is for entertainment purposes only (well, at least some have joked that my brackets have been comical in the past). But while it's a longshot to win any office pool, you can see which teams I like against the spread on the opening two days, Thursday and Friday, as I think they have great chances to pull outright upsets.

Thursday: Minnesota +4 vs. Texas, Maryland +1 vs. California, Northern Iowa +8 1/2 vs. Purdue, and Western Kentucky +4 1/2 vs. Illinois.

Friday: Arizona -1 vs. Utah (well, the announcers will call it an upset), USC -2 vs. Boston College (ditto), Siena +3 1/2 vs. Ohio St., and Utah St. +4 1/2 vs. Marquette.

Good luck and enjoy the madness.

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