NCAA Tournament Betting Preview: Midwest Region
Overview: Illinois nabbed the Midwest Region’s top seed and is one of the top betting choices to win the National Championship. The region features no “blue blood” programs nor perennial contenders. The most storied team is 11th seed Syracuse who was one of the last teams selected and finds itself an underdog to San Diego State in the first round. There are also a number of head coaches making their first NCAA Tournament appearance at their respective schools: Brad Underwood (Illinois), Josh Pastner (Georgia Tech), Steve Pikiell (Rutgers), Mike Boynton (Oklahoma State), Preston Spradlin (Morehead State), Dennis Gates (Cleveland State), and Zach Spiker (Drexel).
Favorites: After an incredible 14-1 run to close out the regular season, Illinois finds itself the region’s betting favorite at +100 according to DraftKings. Fourth seed Oklahoma State checks in at +300 followed by second seed Houston (+350) and third seed West Virginia (+400). While the Illini are certainly deserving of the top seed, it’s hard to justify an even money wager on the need to win four games. In fact, assuming Illinois gets past Drexel, there’s plenty of intrigue looming in the second round. Little brother Loyola Chicago, who reached the Final Four in 2018, plays a Big Ten style of basketball and will also be plenty rested having wrapped up the Missouri Valley title on March 7th. And should Georgia Tech beat Loyola, the Yellow Jackets lucked out by needing only two wins to claim the ACC crown due to their semifinal matchup vs. Virginia being canceled due to COVID. Illinois meanwhile expended a ton of energy to earn a no. 1 seed, including an overtime win over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship. There doesn’t seem to be much value with Oklahoma State either. The Cowboys went 11-7 in Big 12 play but benefited from a perfect 4-0 mark in overtime. Note that none of the three major power rating websites (KenPom, Bart Torvik, or Sagarin) have OSU inside their respective top 25. That doesn’t seem to line up with 3-to-1 odds. And super frosh Cade Cunningham could see himself pitted up against one of the nation’s top one-on-one defenders in Tennessee’s Yves Pons in the second round. Houston offers the most value out of the region’s top contenders. The Cougars should make easy work of Cleveland State and will then see one of two offensively inept Power 5 squads in Clemson or Rutgers. And it’s certainly beneficial to the offensive glass guru Cougars that three of the worst nine defensive rebounding teams in the entire tournament (West Virginia, Syracuse, and Cleveland State) reside in their path to the regional finals. Lastly, West Virginia is essentially the opposite of Oklahoma State, as the Mountaineers were on the unlucky side of a number of games. Of WVU’s seven losses to Big Ten foes, six were by five points or less inducing two in overtime.
Darkhorses: I’m always intrigued by teams that post a stellar record, own a dominate statistical profile, but also come up light in the strength of schedule department. In past seasons, San Diego State (+900 to win region) has never shied away from stepping up in class during non-conference play. But due to COVID, the Aztecs faced only one team currently in KenPom’s top 25; a game they ironically lost at home to no. 24 BYU. But while SDSU isn’t as strong last year’s squad that featured Malachi Flynn, bettors shouldn’t be turned off. The Aztecs do everything well and no matter what time of year or the opponent, they seemingly always play tournament brand basketball. Tennessee (+900) is very similar. The Vols are sometimes painful to watch, particularly when asked to play in the half court, but freshmen Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson have emerged at legitimate offensive weapons. If head coach Rick Barnes is smart, he lets them loose, and leans on one of the best half court defenses in the country.
Picks: Tennessee doesn’t necessarily fit the profile of a team you want to lay points with. In fact, in their last eight games as a favorite of -7 or higher, the Vols covered the point spread only once. But March Madness is all about matchups, and this is a favorable one for UT. Oregon State is a great story and I’m a big fan of head coach Wayne Tinkle, but they have no idea what type of defense they are about to face. The PAC-12 features two teams in USC and Colorado that I would consider “strong” defensively. And in five games against those two squads, OSU netted 58, 62, 49, 57, and 70 points. And note that “strong” doesn’t qualify as “elite.” Oregon State ranked 10th in PAC-12 play in effective field goal percentage despite the fact that half of the league owns a defensive rating of 75th or worse. Tennessee enters the tournament with the nation’s fourth-best defensive rating and are worthy of the laying the points in the first round.
The Big Ten isn’t as “four corners” as it used to be but it’s tough to consistently play up-tempo basketball due in large part to how stout the conference is defensively top to bottom. So you have to be impressed that Illinois averaged over 70 possessions per game in league play. Throw the Illini in the PAC-12, and they could have averaged 74 or 75 possessions per game. When Zach Spiker arrived at Drexel, the Dragons tried to play fast but got progressively slower culminating in this season’s 340th pace rating. Some of that was the Colonial Athletic Conference which ranked 30th out of 32 leagues in terms of pace. But when pitted up against teams that prefer a faster brand of basketball, you come across a number of high possession and scoring games. Against Saint Joseph’s, James Madison, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Hofstra, the average pace was 69.2 and average game score 151.2. Then there’s also Drexel’s season opener against Pitt who ranked 10th in the ACC in offensive efficiency. That game featured 70 possessions with the Panthers winning 83-74. Illinois is without question the most potent and effective transition offense Drexel has seen to date. The game plan going in likely won’t be to attempt to trade baskets with Illinois but eventually, the Dragons won’t have an option. Play this one OVER the total.