It is a great week for sports fans with the start of baseball, the NBA stretch run, the Final Four and the culmination of the college basketball season next Monday at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas for the national championship. It’s clear that it’s not the teams the start the season hot, but the ones that get hot when it really matters — March and April!
Many things happen over the course of a long season. Some teams play great basketball in December and January, only to break down from injuries or run out of steam down the stretch. Iowa started 20-5 until the offense and defense started to struggle in late game situations, dropping six of eight down the stretch (1-7 against the spread run).
A year ago North Carolina started 17-4 but as February started the Tar Heels showed vulnerability, losing 6 of 10. It works the other way, too. A team can have a tough non-conference schedule or need time to work in new pieces, then get hot down the stretch. Two years ago Michigan State overcame injuries in mid-season before getting healthy – – and hot, ripping through the Big 10 tourney, 3-0 both SU and ATS.
It’s important to examine how a team played with overall stats, but also in three different sections: early non-conference play, conference play, then tournament time. Three years ago Miami started 22-3 before the national spotlight and a key injury took a toll, losing in the tourney to Marquette, 71-61.
Kansas and Duke always have the spotlight on them. This season the Jayhawks excellent down the stretch, with a sizzling 10-2 spread run, but Duke has had its troubles with youth and a key injury to its starting center, Amile Jefferson. A year ago Kansas started great, then had some erratic play down the stretch, including losses at Oklahoma, Kansas State, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
The previous season the Jayhawks had a late season injury to 7-footer Joel Imbiid (11 ppg, 8 rpg), the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, a huge blow. The Jayhawks may have won the title eight years ago, but a decade ago it was a very different story: The Jayhawks started 20-1, only to go 3-6 straight up and 1-8 against the spread the last nine games. They never made it to the Final Four because of a 64-63 loss to Bucknell as a 13½-point favorite.
If you go back to the previous fourthree Final Fours before that content analysis, 1999-01, we find Duke topping Maryland 95-84, Arizona blowing out Michigan State 80-61, Michigan State beating Wisconsin 53-41, Florida topping North Carolina 71-59, UConn beating Ohio State 64-58 and Duke surviving Michigan State 68-62. What stands out is that the favorite won and covered in five of six, for a hefty 5-1 spread record.
Even looking at totals, a similar pattern emerges. The last 14 years the “over/under” has been equal, 14-14 over/under in the Final Four. The three years before that the “under” prevailed at a 5-1 clip. All of a sudden, those who look solely at trends as the key to the sports betting kingdom are stuck at close to a .500 winning percentage ATS.
For the record, going back the last 20 years, there have been 24 “unders” and 16 “overs” in the Final Four, with 21 ‘dogs covering while 18 favorites have gotten the money with one push. Again, trends are worth examining, but there needs to be reasons behind them if you’re serious about putting down hard earned money on a side. Perhaps the most significant stat that stands out is that 16 of the 21 ‘dogs that covered ended up winning the game outright, which shows how competitive and relatively evenly matched the games become when teams get this far in the season.