LAS VEGAS — The wrench that West Virginia coach Bob Huggins tossed at Kentucky in 2010 embodies March magnificence, which professional bettor Conner Streeter uses to illustrate how to capitalize on the madness.
The 35-2 Wildcats were a No. 1 seed that featured spitfire guard John Wall and zipped to the rim with impunity, but they shot poorly from the perimeter. Huggins entered the game 7-1 against Kentucky coach John Calipari. The Wildcats, however, were four-point favorites.
Sticky defenses have long been Huggins staples, and for this Elite Eight game in Syracuse, New York, he would implement a 1-3-1 zone — to gum up the middle and invite
the Wildcats to launch three-pointers — on the fly.
Kentucky rattled off 11 consecutive points, keyed by four breezy layups, for a 13-6 lead. Huggins went to the 1-3-1. Game over. West Virginia took the lead for good late in the first half.
The Wildcats missed their first 20 three-point shots, hitting only 12.5% (4 of 32) for the game. The Mountaineers, who sank 10 of 23 (45.5%) from long range, won 73-66.
Streeter, the professional alias of an offshore gambler who taps distant-land sportsbooks for optimal numbers, provides a dissertation about this game, and other insights, gratis on his BiffsSportsAlmanac website.
“That the Wildcats were only four-point favorites speaks to the reputation that Huggins has with smart bettors,” he wrote in an email. “Calipari and Kentucky got completely blindsided and taken apart by a Bob Huggins masterpiece.
“While there never was a Calipari confirmation, there is no doubt that Kentucky didn’t prepare for the 1-3-1 very much, if at all, based on its performance and how shaky it was at moving the ball around the entire game.”
BEWARE DOUBLE-DIGIT SEEDS
Streeter, and fellow handicappers Paul Stone and Tom Barton, provided further elements to consider when the NCAA brackets are revealed Sunday.
Barton, a Long Island resident who hosts a daily sports-gambling show on the nationally syndicated SportsGarten radio network, likes 1- and 2-seeded teams giving fewer than 20 points in first-round games.
“It isn’t that rare and they always seem to want to prove something,” he said, “so they crush the opponent in those spots.”
He prizes superior guards and advises to never expect a fairy-tale long shot to do more than win one game. He leans toward 10th and 11th seeds. I include them in a review with 12s and 13s over the 2018 and 2019 NCAAs.
That’s 32 first-round games. In 11, the double-digit seed defeated its single-seed opponent, a success rate (34.4%) higher than the seed disparities might suggest.
In only one of those games, the double-digit seed was favored; 10th-seed and 1½-point favorite Butler beat 7th-seed Arkansas 79-62 in 2018.
That was the year of the big one, 16th-seeded Maryland-Baltimore County’s 74-54 triumph against top-seeded and 20½-point-favorite Virginia. The Cavaliers connected on only 4 of 22 shots beyond the arc, while UMBC hit 12 of 24.
Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 1 seeds had gone 135-0 against 16s. The Retrievers aptly had become one of the game’s greatest underdogs, a 20-1 shot at most sportsbooks to beat Virginia outright.
William Hill, with more than 100 shops in Nevada, wrote 134 such tickets on UMBC. At the Venetian, an Alabama tourist put $100 on UMBC’s moneyline but pondered not cashing his $2,100 ticket, saying it represented history.
To summarize the 10s through 13s, a 10 and three 11s, 12s and 13s all have won first-round games as underdogs in the last two NCAAs.
“Sometimes the line is very short and the 12 is the better team, then people fall over themselves when the 5 loses, as if it’s some colossal upset,” Streeter said. “UMBC, now THAT is an upset.”
THE GREAT EQUALIZER
Stone, in east Texas, has watched the value in betting early-round underdogs erode over recent seasons. He notes that in most major sports the public usually backs favorites.
“The tournament has evolved into an event where many casual bettors actually look first to back the underdog,” Stone said. “I find myself more and more trying to find a favorite in the early-round games at a bargain price.”
He likes to bet a favored team from a power conference that appears to be in poor form over a program from a lesser conference with a better record.
“You might be able to lay 3 with this type of team,” adds Stone, “when your numbers tell you the line should really be 5 or 5½.”
He recommends examining a team’s long-range marksmanship as a vital part of assessing its tournament chances. Those UMBC and West Virginia victories highlight the precious significance of three-point shots.
And in those 12 double-digit-seed victories, the winner either made more three-pointers or shot better from distance than its opponent. The winners hit 42.5% (111-for-261), the losers 24.6% (67-for-272).
Tournament teams that have been connecting from distance lately include Oregon, Loyola, Drexel and Baylor. Villanova, Michigan State and North Carolina have been sour from the perimeter.
Atlantic Sun champion Liberty was 10th in the nation in three-point shooting, at 38.8%. Texas Tech allowed road opponents to sink 42.2% of their three-pointers, third-worst in the country.
“The great equalizer in college basketball,” Stone said. “Teams that are overmatched, physically and athletically, can compete with, or even win a game against, a superior opponent if the three-point shots are falling.”