The first week of the NCAA men's basketball tournament exceeded expectations with several upsets, drama and exciting action. Unfortunately, with all the upsets, no one will win the Quicken Loans Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge. No bracket emerged from the Round of 32 without at least one blemish.
For the most part, I followed my own advice when filling out my bracket this year, and the strategy served me well. I started the tournament with 12 straight wins, and went to bed Thursday night thinking I had a shot at winning $1 billion – I only needed to get the next 51 games right!
Arizona State, however, failed to get the job done, and my perfect bracket dreams were dashed. In the end, I correctly predicted 27 of the 32 games in the Round of 32, and 10 of my teams made it to the Sweet Sixteen. I still have six teams alive to make the Elite Eight, and all four of my Final Four teams are also still in contention.
I did correctly predict that one 13- or 14-seed would pull off a big upset in the first round; unfortunately, it wasn't the one I picked, as Mercer defeated Duke and New Mexico State failed to pull off a comeback win against San Diego State, falling in overtime.
The one place I failed to follow my own advice was picking a No. 2 seed to lose in the second round, which was a major error, as Villanova lost to Connecticut and Kansas fell to Stanford. That's unfortunate, because the top-20 finishers in the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge will take home $100,000. Hindsight is 20/20, right? At least I figured out that Syracuse would lose to Dayton in the second round, but as a lifelong Syracuse fan, I saw that coming a mile away.
So now that I'm out of contention for a $100,000 prize, I'm looking for value in the sportsbook. While I won't be able to make any of these bets because online sports betting is illegal in Massachusetts and I won't be making the trek to Vegas this week, here are my top-10 Sweet Sixteen bets.
All individual game lines and over/unders are from bet365 Sportsbook & Racebook.
10. Connecticut/Iowa State – Over 146.5
UConn has scored at least 75 points in 19 games this season, and Iowa State averages 83 points per game with five players averaging double-digit scoring totals (Editor's note: One of those players, Georges Niang broke his foot during Iowa State's opening game and is out for the remainder of the tournament.). Iowa State's depth is going to lead to plenty of scoring opportunities, and I think UConn's athleticism will allow the Huskies to keep pace, resulting in a high-scoring game. And with the rate of overtime games we've seen in the first two rounds of the tournament, an overtime game here would be a big boost to the game's point total. I think the line here is set too well to bet (Iowa State is a 1.5-point favorite), but I do like the over bet here.
9. Michigan State (-1) vs. Virginia
This game is a clash many bracketologists saw coming, and most of the college basketball pundits out there have given Michigan State the edge in this game. Who am I to tell a whole host of ESPN experts that they're wrong? Plus, Casino City Editor-in-chief Vin Narayanan is a Michigan State alum, so maybe this bet will keep me in his good graces.
8. Baylor/Wisconsin – Over 137
These offenses have averaged nearly 80 points per game in their first two tournament games, and while I traditionally think of Wisconsin as a defense-minded team first, the Badgers have scored at least 70 points in nine of their last 11 games, while Baylor has reached the 70-point plateau in 13 of its last 15. If both teams get to 70 points, this easily hits the over. I'm not saying they both will, but I'm betting one of them does. And if it's a close game, that should be enough to hit the over.
7. Dayton (+3) vs. Stanford
I had Dayton making my Sweet Sixteen for a reason. While they struggled in January, they've been rock solid since (well, at least against everyone other than Saint Joseph's). I figured they'd finally fall to Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen round, but with the Cardinals toppling the Jayhawks on Sunday, we have the rare 10/11 game on Thursday.
Stanford's height in the interior gave Kansas fits, but the Flyers showed they could deal with length against Syracuse. And Stanford's offense has been struggling, averaging just 57.3 points per game in its last three outings. I expect a close game here, so I'll take the points. And I'd even consider taking Dayton on the money line here, although those odds had not been listed as of press time.
6. Arizona (-6.5) vs. San Diego State
I don't know why, but I'm just not a San Diego State believer. Sure, they handled North Dakota State, but they barely eked out a victory over New Mexico State (that would have been a huge boon for my bracket). And while Arizona struggled to get going against Weber State, the Wildcats handled Gonzaga in the second round, 84-61. I think Arizona continues to roll all the way to the Final Four, and this should be another easy game.
5. Florida/UCLA – Under 137
This is a classic clash between a high-powered offense and a stingy defense. UCLA averages 82 points per game. Florida allows less than 60. I think Florida's defense will come out ahead in this battle, forcing the Bruins to slow down their offense and limiting them to just one opportunity each time down the floor. And Florida has shown so far in the tournament that even when it puts together a big lead, it doesn't let up on defense. I expect that trend to continue, so I'll take the under here.
4. Michigan (-2) vs. Tennessee
Michigan should send Mercer a box of chocolates for paving the Wolverines' road to the Final Four. By knocking out Duke in the first round, then bowing out to Tennessee, Mercer nearly assured Michigan (in my mind, at least) a spot in the Elite Eight. I'd take Michigan if the line were as high as 3.5 or maybe even 4, so I love getting the Wolverines at -2.
3. Kentucky (+5) vs. Louisville
I know Kentucky's an 8-seed and I get that they should be the underdog here, but a five-point spread here seems way out of line. The Wildcats beat the Cardinals 73-66 in the regular season (yes, I know that game was on Kentucky's home court, but still). While Kentucky did struggle a bit at the end of the season, going 5-5 over their last 10, three of those losses came to top-ranked Florida. And Louisville looked vulnerable against a Manhattan squad that it should have blown out.
This is a rivalry game and I expect it to be a classic. When a game has a really good chance of coming down to the last possession, and you can get a +5 line, take the underdog. I'm going Kentucky here, all the way.
2. Michigan to win the Midwest Region – 7/2
Louisville is the favorite to win this bracket at 11/10, according to Bovada Sportsbook. But I think they're going to have a tough test against Kentucky in their next game, so they might not even advance to the regional final.
Michigan was my pick to win the Midwest from the start, and I think the Wolverines should be even bigger favorites against Tennessee than they are, so obviously I like their chances to make the regional final. With 7/2 odds, I think Michigan is easily the best value in this region (Kentucky and Tennessee are both 4/1), and I believe it has the best chance to win regardless of the odds.
1. Baylor to win the West Region – 6/1
Yes, I know that earlier in this column I said I thought Arizona was going to win the West Region and roll into the Final Four. However, the Wildcats are listed at 10/11 to win the West at bet365. Baylor really impressed me with its utter dismantling of Creighton on Sunday, and I think they have a great shot to knock off Wisconsin on Thursday. Win that game, and as they say, anything can happen. The 6/1 odds are the true draw here. I still think Arizona will win, but you'd get a nice payday if Baylor manages to overcome its No. 6 seed and advance to the Final Four.
Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd has covered the gambling industry since 2006. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi. Follow him on Twitter @CasinoCity_AT.