Trends are as much a part of March Madness as a stack of blank brackets and that CBS college basketball theme song. You know the one: Da-da, Da-da, Da, Da-dum, Da-da, Dum!
It doesn’t matter if you’re simply taking part in a friendly NCAA office pool or getting down action on the Big Dance at your sportsbook of choice, tournament trends will look for you. They will find you. And they will kill you…r NCAA wagers. Taken style. Or at least most of them will.
Wrangling NCAA tournament trends is more difficult than any other major sport, mainly because player turnover in college hoops is pretty significant, especially in power conferences. The year-to-year makeup and talent level of programs fluctuate more than stock prices following a Trump tweet, and sports bettors should really watch it when it comes to putting any weight into these long-running stats.
Oh, you’ll hear some real doozies as it pertains to particular conferences and their ATS success in the national tournament over the last 20 years or betting trends tied to specific seedings (especially useless since they’ve changed the way they seed teams and added play-in games). And we at Covers are among the guilty purveyors of such hollow facts, as a lot of these trends – while completely f-ing worthless - are fun topics to discuss and weigh against matchups that qualify for debate.
I’ve always viewed historical trends as a slight nudge in direction (not saying it’s the right direction), like a trail of bread crumbs or moss growing on the north side of a tree. They’re a first step in the process and some are worthy of deeper exploration. But trends are very much just a single cog in the handicapping machine.
Things like recent form and current trends based on this season’s output should hold importance over the fact that No. 11 seeds set between +6 and +9.5 are covering at a 61 percent clip since 1998 (they’re not by the way. I just made up a ridiculous trend as an example. For God’s sake, don’t place a bet based on that).
How books treat trends
Perhaps the best way to measure the validity of historic NCAA Tournament betting trends is to ask the guys who set the odds on each and every game: the bookmakers. And what you’ll get back from the bookies when it comes to their use of historic trends when setting their spreads and totals is an echoing “Nahhhhhhhhh”.
Trends are generally ignored by oddsmakers. Historical trends with large samplings may carry some weight, but still it would be very minimal. In all, trends are something the public loves to point to, but they have almost no bearing on how oddsmakers proceed with their side of the business.
In fact, some sportsbooks pointed to historical trends as their biggest weapon against the betting public. And it makes sense.
College basketball is a sharp market all the way through non-conference, conference, and Championship Week play, with the action about a 70/30 split in terms of wiseguys to public bets. Then Selection Sunday happens and suddenly everyone and their dog is a damn NCAA expert and talking about Loyola Chicago as a sleeper team they’ve been watching all season. I’m calling bullshit.
That same guy clucking away about RPI is advancing a team in his bracket or placing a wager solely based on some whack-ass trend he saw on Twitter about SEC schools struggling when giving double digits in the Round of 32 (again, just a made-up trend).
And it’s not just game-by-game betting, it also lures unsuspecting bettors into the NCAA futures waters as well. The dream of riding a Cinderella to a huge payday is what makes the NCAA tournament futures nearly guaranteed profits for the bookmakers.
A long-time oddsmaking contact always reminds me that lines are set to the public’s perception, and if the bettors are factoring in historic trends into their capping, the books will as well. As one bookmaker pointed out, a now-busted trend like a No. 1 seed never losing to a No. 16 may prompt a few extra cents on the moneyline for the top-seeded team knowing plenty of public players will tie those lofty moneylines to other wagers just to get a bit more bang for their buck. How'd that work out for those tying Virginia into their parlays last year? Answer: not well.
Not all trends are bad
OK, we’ve said some terrible things about historic NCAA trends, many of which we can’t take back. That doesn’t mean ALL HISTORIC TRENDS should be thrown in the trash and/or sorted for recycling.
Leave it to long-time handicapper and gatekeeper of one of the biggest betting databases in the business, Marc Lawrence, to school me on the value of historic trends using this famous Winston Churchill quote, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Who am I to argue with the Prime Minister? But I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a bunch of dudes yelling “What the hell kind of shot was that?!” at a TV in mind when he said that.
Lawrence says by relying on past patterns we can better anticipate expectancy and by applying them to current form, we become better, well-rounded handicappers. He specifically points to trends as they pertain to head coaches, stating “Their personalities and traits are reflective on a team’s measure of success on the court.”
And it makes sense. Players come and go in the college ranks, but head coaches remain the same, as do their game plans, offensive playbook, and defensive philosophies. They recruit players that will fit their system, so those results are more stable and reliable than other historic NCAA trends.
Another trend used by not only handicappers but also showing up on the radar of bookmakers is a team’s defensive efficiency ranking. OK, OK. That’s not so much of a trend as it is a stat, but when you apply it to past Final Four teams, there’s an absolute trend bleeding through the bracket.
Looking back at the past seven NCAA tournaments (2012 to 2018), only one Final Four team has ranked outside of the Top 40 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), and that was Kansas (47th) last year. Thirteen of those 28 national semifinal programs have placed inside the Top 10 in that stat column (including eight in the Top 3).
That means whether you’re filling out your bracket, taking a flyer on the futures, or betting game-to-game, you should really take a hard look at teams ranked Nos. 1-14 in defensive efficiency. It’s something oddsmakers admittedly look at when setting their outright odds for the Big Dance.
Historic offensive and defensive efficiency data of past champions and Final Four teams are used to set the futures odds on the NCAA tournament,” admits one online oddsmaker. “It also helps if they play at a fast tempo.”
Mixing offensive pace into the NCAA sauce, along with defensive efficiency, you have a select number of qualifying teams this year: Duke, North Carolina and Buffalo. Those programs sit +225, +600, and +8,500 respectively on the NCAA futures board.
Infamous 12 over 5
We couldn’t end this bad boy without mentioning the most notorious NCAA tournament trend of them all: No. 12 seed over a No. 5 seed.
Yes, this is a trend that shows up most times in March but is far from a given. All No. 5 seeds advance unscathed in the Round of 64 last year. Going back to 2012, all four No. 5 seeds have advanced past the Round of 64 just twice in that span – in 2015 and 2018 – and before that 2007 was the last time we saw this trend come up short. In that seven-season span, No. 5 seeds are just 15-13 SU versus No. 12 seeds in the opening round.
When you throw a pointspread into this matchup, the No. 5 seeds have been a money pit, going just 11-16-1 ATS since 2012. They failed to cover in three of four matchups in 2017 and were also 1-3 ATS in 2016 but posted a 3-0-1 ATS mark last year. And, No. 5 seeds are also 9-3 SU in those last three tournaments.
“I’m not a trends guy but from an observation stand point I’d say the No. 12 versus No. 5 matchup has been drawn out,” says Covers Experts Zack Cimini. “There was a time that the No. 12 seed teams warranted upset potential. Nowadays, the No. 5 seed has become more dangerous. These teams usually had their moments in-season and are rounding back into form.”
As a historical trend, I’m so weary of seed-based betting, but there’s no denying that the No. 12 over No. 5 trend has teeth - big nasty sand shark-looking ones – when you level the playing field with a spread.
Of course, as Mr. Lawrence proclaimed, trends like these allow bettors to “anticipate expectancy” and when measured against current form, you can pinpoint the value – or in this case the No. 5 least likely to cover the spread against the No. 12 seed.