Handicapping March Madness – The NCAA Basketball Tournament

photo by Kevin Tsui
photo by Kevin Tsui

In anticipation of March Madness, casual and hard core fans across the country have been turning in their tournament predictions for their office pools. I have a friend, Brian, whose interest in the tournament runs much
deeper than filling out a bracket. He has been handicapping and betting on tournament games since 2002. Brian is an avid sports fan, with college basketball being far and away his favorite, but his basketball picks are based on much more than watching games on television. Using a computer aided system, Brian projects the outcome of each game to find opportunities to beat the Vegas point spread. Brian is no slouch when it comes to computer programming. He has a BS in Computer Science and a MS in Computer and Information Science with an emphasis in Cybernetics. He did quite a bit of research in Artificial Intelligence back in the day and has designed and built intelligent decisioning systems for various financial services companies over the years.

In sports betting, the most common wager is a straight bet in which you must beat the point spread to win.  For example,  in the opening round of this year’s tournament, the Louisville Cardinals are playing the Moorehead State Eagles.  Louisville is the #1 seeded team in the tournament, while Moorehead State is a #16 seed and was the last team to qualify for the final 64. It doesn’t take a basketball expert to recognize that Louisville has a very high probability of defeating Moorehead St.  To equal the playing field for betting purposes, the sports books have made Louisville a 21 point favorite.  If you bet on Louisville, the Cardinals must win by more than 21 points for you to win the wager.  If you bet on Moorehead State, you can cash a winning ticket if the Eagles lose by 20 points or less.  A 21 point Louisville victory would result in a tie for all bettors.

To make money as a sports handicapper, you not only have to beat the point spread, you have to beat the vigorish, more commonly called the “vig.”   On a straight wager, you have to risk $1.10 for every $1.00 you would like to win.  If you want to win $100, you  have to risk $110.   The difference between what you risk and the potential payout is the vig, which is basically a sports book’s commission for booking the transaction. The point spread is set at a number the sports books believe will draw an equal amount of betting action on both sides.  Taking into account the vig, a sports bettor must win more than the break even point of 52.38% of his bets to yield a profit.

There is a significant amount of free data available that rank and rate college basketball teams. In addition to looking at a team’s record you can find RPI, power ratings, and predictor models from a variety of sources.  Brian combines several of these with his own proprietary “secret sauce” to arrive at a numerical power ranking for each team.  However, this is not enough.  A power ranking reflects a team’s overall performance to date, but does not necessarily take into account other critical factors such as home court advantage, neutral court performance, injuries, hot streaks, rivalry matches and a team’s past tournament performance.

Brian forecasts the outcome of each game by taking the power ranking for each team and then adjusting that number to reflect factors specific to the match-up. Most of Brian’s projections have point spreads that are very close to the Vegas lines.  Brian tosses these games out. He’s looking for games in which the Vegas line has a statistically significant difference from his computerized point spreads. Public opinion usually accounts for these differences. In order to get balanced action on both sides, the sports books will often shade their point spreads from what they consider the true lines. The point spreads on popular teams and favorites usually have public bias factored in. A sharp sports bettor is essentially betting against the public.

A summary of Brian’s handicapping approach:
1.  Compute the baseline power ranking based on a combination of ratings that are publicly available.
2.  Adjust the base ranking by other more intangible factors (injuries, home court, etc.)
3.  Play out each “pod” as a 4 team mini-tournament at a site (for example, the #1, 16, 8 & 9 seeds) with every possible match-up to compute a favorite and a point spread.
4.  Compare computerized system’s point spreads against the Vegas line and select the games with a significant difference.

Brian’s top 16 teams according to his base power rankings:
1.   North Carolina
2.   Pittsburgh
3.   Connecticut
4.   Duke
5.   Louisville
6.   Memphis
7.   Michigan State
8.   Gonzaga
9.   Oklahoma
10.    Missouri
11.    Purdue
12.    Wake Forest
13.    Syracuse
14.    West Virginia
15.    Kansas
16.   Villanova

*** Brian’s picks are for educational and entertainment purposes only.  Any money wagered on these picks is solely the responsibility of the bettor. ***
Brian’s Picks and his comments for Thursday and Friday’s first round games:

LSU -2.5  vs Butler
I like Butler. There seems to be some hesitation to pick a mid-major over a “big” school from a major conference. However, the SEC is really down this year and LSU may be a case of “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Their numbers just aren’t that impressive given the competition. Butler has played well despite losing in their conference tourney final and is not a newcomer to the NCAA tournament. I actually look for the Bulldogs to win this game.

Gonzaga -11.5 vs Akron
I like Gonzaga to cover this one. This game is in Portland so Gonzaga should have the feel of a home court. Akron is a nice mid-major but will be in over their head against the ‘Zags.’

Illinois -4.0 vs Western Kentucky
I like the Illini to cover this one easily. This is a very popular upset pick – everyone loves the 5/12 game. But even with the injury to Frazier from Illinois the numbers just don’t support the emotional upset pick. Although the Big 10’s power is questionable, Illinois has had some nice non-conference wins contributing to their power numbers and should be able to physically overpower Western Kentucky.

Arizona -1  vs Utah
I like the Utes in this one. Some might think Arizona has something to prove being the team many believe doesn’t belong. They are a traditional power but have struggled this year and have struggled as of late. Most importantly, every big win they’ve had has been at home. This game is in Miami. Utah has been a solid, consistent performer this year and I like them in the upset.


  1. I guess that is why they call it March Madness. 1 out of 4 for the rational system. Who would have guess Cleveland State drubbing Wake Forest. I thought in the year of the power conferences it would be a safe bet to pick with the committee at least in the first round; I thought wrong!

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