Sportbooks dish which first round matchups were toughest to set opening lines

Mar 13, 2018 |

The first couple of days of the NCAA Tournament can be a conundrum for oddsmakers. As hard as it is to set lines for two teams of roughly equal stature, it can also be tough to find the right number for projected blowouts, and the many games in between.

That prompted Covers to ask which game in each region proved the most challenging to set the opening line. Johnny Avello, executive director of race and sports at Wynn Las Vegas, chimed in with his thoughts, as did Scott Cooley, odds consultant for offshore sportsbook; D.J. Fields, odds consultant for online site; and Ed Salmons, oddsmaker for the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook.


No. 12 Murray State Racers vs. No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers – Open: -10; Move: -10.5

West Virginia is definitely a solid squad, one that could have beaten Midwest Region No. 1 seed Kansas in all three meetings this season, but ended up losing all three. The last of those came in Saturday’s Big 12 Tournament final, where the Mountaineers (24-10 SU, 15-15 ATS) fell 81-70 as a 1.5-point underdog.

Murray State hasn’t played nearly that level of competition, but there’s one other thing it hasn’t done too: lose, in nearly two months. The Racers (26-5 SU, 17-11 ATS) beat Belmont 68-51 as a 1.5-point pup in the Ohio Valley Conference title game on March 3 and take a 13-game winning streak into the NCAA Tourney.

“Murray State has 26 wins out of the Ohio Valley, West Virginia of course one of the most talented teams in the country,” Avello said of this Friday matchup. “Could Murray State stay within this 10-point (spread)? The number seems to be right at this time.”

That time was Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, bettors had spoken enough for Avello to move the line to 10.5, though he went back to 10 on Tuesday morning.

No. 10 Butler Bulldogs vs. No. 7 Arkansas Razorbacks – Open: +1; Move: +1.5; Move: +2

Butler limped to the finish line a bit, going 3-6 SU and 2-7 ATS in its last nine, though a few of those nine were against other NCAA-bid teams out of the Big East. The Bulldogs (20-13 SU, 15-17 ATS) lost to East No. 1 seed Villanova 87-68 as an 8-point pup in the Big East semis Friday.

Arkansas shored up its NCAA credentials by winning a pair of games in the SEC Tournament before falling in Saturday’s semis. The Razorbacks (23-11 SU, 17-16-1 ATS) tumbled to Tennessee 84-66 catching 3 points.

“This is the only matchup on the opening board where the (better) seed wasn’t favored,” Cooley said of a Friday contest. “The Hogs have a really good squad, and you wouldn’t get many arguments if they were a short favorite here, but the public has come to adopt Butler as its Cinderella team over the last few years, so that helped sway the needle toward the Bulldogs.”

No. 15 Cal State-Fullerton Titans vs. No. 2 Purdue Boilermakers – Open: -21; Move: -20.5

Purdue won five of its last six games and reached the Big Ten Tourney title game, but cashed in just one of its last 13 outings (1-11-1 ATS). In the March 4 Big Ten final, the Boilermakers (28-6 SU, 15-17-1 ATS) lost to Michigan 75-66 as a 4-point fave.

Cal State-Fullerton made a three-day run from the No. 4 slot to win the Big West Conference Tournament last week. The Titans (20-11 SU, 18-9 ATS), 8-2 SU and ATS in their last 10, rolled over California-Irvine 71-55 getting 2 points in Saturday’s final.

“On paper, Purdue should be a bigger favorite than 20.5, but the Boilermakers have had trouble covering the spread,” Fields said of another Friday game. “We opened up Purdue as a 21-point favorite, but the early money came in on the underdog.”


No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners vs. No. 7 Rhode Island Rams – Open: Pick; Move: -1; Move: -1.5; Move: -2; Move: -1.5; Move: -2

Oklahoma is a mess of a team that many people felt didn’t deserve an NCAA bid. The Sooners (18-13 SU, 10-20 ATS) went 2-8 SU and ATS in their last 10 games, tumbling to Oklahoma State 71-60 as a 1-point chalk in their Big 12 Tourney opener.

Rhode Island stubbed its toe twice late against Davidson by a total of 3 points, first in the regular-season finale, then in the Atlantic 10 Tourney final. In that second meeting, the Rams (25-7 SU, 16-13-1 ATS) lost 58-57 laying 2.5 points. The Rams cashed in just two of their last eight games.

“Oklahoma played terribly in the second half of the season,”’s Fields said. “Despite limping into the tournament, we still think the Sooners are the favorite to beat Rhode Island.  Not many are sharing that opinion, as we opened the game a pick and the line quickly moved to Rhode Island as a 2-point favorite.

The Superbook’s Salmons expressed similar concerns and saw similar line movement for this game, which is the first on the NCAA Tournament schedule, at 12:15 p.m. ET Thursday.

“The hardest game was Oklahoma-Rhode Island,” Salmons said. “Oklahoma has been so bad, but Rhode Island hasn't exactly been playing good either.”

Cooley said a key part of the difficulty in setting this line at was visibility of the two teams. Everyone saw the Sooners’ second-half meltdown, but they know little about the Rams.

“Another 7-10 matchup that was a bit tricky because of public perception,” Cooley said. “Everyone expected backlash for Oklahoma’s seed, but the casual bettors still know who the Sooners and Trae Young are, while they didn’t watch a single Rhode Island game this year.”

BetDSI opened the Rams -1 and went up to 2.

No. 14 Bucknell Bison vs. No. 3 Michigan State Spartans – Open: -14; Move: -14.5.; Move: -15

Despite losing to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament semis, Michigan State enters the Big Dance among the hottest teams in the nation. The Spartans (29-4 SU, 15-16-2 ATS) fell to the Wolverines 75-64 laying 5 points in that March 3 meeting, but prior to that had won 13 in a row (4-7-2 ATS).

Bucknell is the pride of the Patriot League, steamrolling to the regular-season and tournament titles. The Bison (25-9 SU, 5-5 ATS) have won eight in a row and 18 of 19 SU, including an 83-59 flossing of Colgate as a 9-point favorite in Wednesday’s league title game.

“The reason this game was tough for me was because Michigan State hasn’t played in a while,” Avello said of the Spartans’ layoff heading into this Friday outing. “I don’t know how to react to a college team that hasn’t played in close to two weeks. This hasn’t happened before, because (the Big Ten) played their conference tournament early.”

Early bettors at the Wynn had no problem with the layoff, pushing the Spartans up to -15 for this Friday game.


No. 12 Davidson Wildcats vs. No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats – Open: -7; Move: -6.5; Move: -6; Move: -5.5

It’s a battle of Wildcats on Thursday night, but one squad is obviously far more well-known. Blueblood and perennial national title contender Kentucky (24-10 SU, 17-17 SU) won and cashed in all three Southeastern Conference Tournament games, taking the final 77-72 over Tennessee as a 2-point underdog.

Davidson (21-11 SU, 18-12-1 ATS) punched its Big Dance ticket by winning the A-10 championship game, 58-57 over Rhode Island as a 2.5-point ‘dog.

“This is a David vs. Goliath matchup where most probably would have expected to see Kentucky as a double-digit favorite, especially considering the way that team played in the SEC Tournament,” Cooley said. “However, we anticipated sharp money on Davidson, so we couldn’t be too high with the spread. And that money has come in, dropping the line to -5.5.”

No. 16 Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers vs. No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers – Open: -22; Move: -22.5

Virginia (31-2 SU, 20-9-1 ATS) is the NCAA Tournament’s top seed in the South and the No. 1 overall seed, having won eight in a row in the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference. That included a run to the ACC Tourney title, capped by a 71-63 victory over North Carolina as a 3.5-point chalk Saturday.

Maryland-Baltimore County has played only five lined games all season, three of them in the America East Conference Tournament. But the Retrievers (24-10 SU, 3-1-1 ATS) won and covered in all three of those games, knocking off top seed Vermont 65-62 as a 9.5-point underdog in Saturday’s final.

“The reason this game was tough for me is because Virginia only scores about 67 points a game, and that’s on a good day,” Avello said. “UMBC is 72 points a game, so they actually score 5 more points than Virginia on a daily basis. But the problem is the 23-point spread – that shows the talent disparity. That throws me for a loop. But I still had to use my power ratings, Virginia a 22-point favorite.”

That number actually ticked up to 22.5 for this Friday afternoon contest.

No. 10 Texas Longhorns vs. No. 7 Nevada Wolf Pack – Open: Pick; Move: +1; Move: Pick; Move: -1

Nevada (27-7 SU, 16-14-3 ATS) won the Mountain West Conference regular-season crown, but got thumped in the MWC Tourney semis 90-73 giving 2 points against San Diego State. Texas (19-14 SU, 15-14 ATS) did just enough in a tough Big 12 to nab an at-large bid, including playing Texas Tech tough in the tourney quarterfinals before losing 73-69 catching 6.5 points.

“Mohamed Bamba’s status is paramount to this game,” Fields said, and all signs point to the Texas star being fully recovered from a recent toe injury. “With Bamba in, the Longhorns are the favorite. Without him, this game could be the Wolf Pack’s to lose.”

Bettors at have waivered, taking the line from Pick to Texas -1, then pushing a 2-point swing to Nevada -1 for this Friday tipoff.


No. 13 North Carolina-Greensboro Spartans vs. No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs – Open: -12.5; Move: None

Gonzaga has won 14 in a row SU, but hasn’t been nearly as impressive for bettors, going just 5-9 ATS in that stretch. Two of those covers came in the semifinal and final games of the West Coast Conference Tournament. The Bulldogs (30-4 SU, 14-16-1 ATS) claimed the WCC title with a 74-54 wipeout of Brigham Young giving 9 points on March 6.

Likewise, UNC-Greensboro is coming off an easy win and has gotten plenty of rest ahead of this Thursday game. The Spartans (27-7 SU, 17-9-1 ATS) dropped East Tennessee State 62-47 as a 2-point underdog in the Southern Conference final on March 5.

“When I look at the Gonzaga team, year in and year out, this Mark Few is one kind of coach,” Avello said. “But he’s had some really talented players there in the past, and I don’t think this team is quite as talented as those teams were. So that was my toughest chore, it may be my toughest of all the games.”

No. 9 Florida State Seminoles vs. No. 8 Missouri Tigers – Open: -1.5; Move: -1; Move: Pick; Move: +1; Move: Pick; Move: +1

Missouri has NBA prospect Michael Porter back in the lineup, after he missed all but two games this year, playing only the season opener – in which he suffered a back injury – and the SEC Tourney second round last week. In the SEC contest against Georgia, Porter had 12 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes, but the Tigers (20-12 SU, 16-15 ATS) fell just short 62-60 as a 3.5-point fave.

Florida State (20-11 SU, 15-13-1 ATS) enters this Friday clash off an 82-74 loss to Louisville as a 2.5-point favorite in the second round of the ACC Tournament.

“The 8-9 matchups are often the most difficult to set lines for, year in and year out,” Cooley said. “They are teams on almost equal footing in the eyes of the committee, and generally, the oddsmakers are in accordance with those projections. Here, we opened Mizzou a 1.5-point favorite, but early smart money swung the spread to Seminoles -1.”

No. 14 Montana Grizzlies vs. No. 3 Michigan Wolverines – Open: -12; Move: -11.5; Move: -11; Move: -11.5; Move: -11

Michigan is on a nine-game SU tear (8-1 ATS), including a four-game run through the Big Ten Tournament. The Wolverines (28-7 SU, 22-11-1 ATS) dropped Purdue 75-66 getting 4 points in the March 4 final.

Montana (26-7 SU, 19-11-1 ATS) coasted to the Big Sky Tourney title, beating Eastern Washington 82-65 as a 4.5-point chalk Saturday.

“We went back and forth, trying to find an opening line that factors in the difference in strength of schedule and the lack of experience on the big stage,” Fields said of the number for this Thursday night game.

Early on, bettors felt’s opener of Michigan -12 was slightly high, betting it down to 11.

Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.

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