Betting the Dog

2018 was a banner year for underdogs, but that shouldn’t be a surprise

The 2018 NCAA Tournament was the year of the underdog.

With a historic No. 16 upset of a No. 1, University of Maryland—Baltimore County’s win against Virginia in the first round, and No. 11 University of Loyola—Chicago making it to the Final Four, underdogs went wild in 2018.

In the long run, however, trends will tell a different story than the 2018 tournament. No matter the odds, it’s still fun to bet on the underdog—and there’s a better payoff.

“It’s a lottery ticket,” said Jason Simbal, CG Technology Sportsbooks vice president. “In the tournament, people generally bet the favorite to cover the spread or bet on the underdog and hope for 100 bucks.”

The odds of hitting the jackpot aren’t as long as they used to be, and they continue to get better.

A look at the past six Final Fours says a lot, as a No. 7 seed or higher has made it to the Final Four each year: No. 11 Loyola – 2018; No. 7 South Carolina – 2017; No. 10 Syracuse – 2016; No. 7 Michigan State – 2015; No. 8 Kentucky and No. 7 Connecticut – 2014; and No. 9 Wichita State – 2013.

Loyola isn’t even the first No. 11 to make it to the Final Four in the past decade, as Virginia Commonwealth University made a similar run in 2011, a Final Four that also included No. 8 Butler.

Prior to VCU’s run, George Mason reached the Final Four in 2006 and LSU in 1987, both as 11 seeds.

It will likely be years until a No. 16, or even a No. 15, seed makes it to the Final Four, but bettors in 2018 were facing better odds than ever before to see a long shot pay off.

CG had one bettor cash in on a +2,000 $800 bet on UMBC, collecting $16,800 on the, for now, once-in-a-lifetime upset.

Watching the game, however, told a different story than the odds, and the Retrievers ended up winning the game by 20 points, becoming the only team to score more than 70 points against Virginia in the 2017–18 season. There have been other close calls for No. 1 seeds, including Murray State against Michigan State in 1990, UNC Asheville against Syracuse in 2012, and Princeton against Georgetown and East Tennessee State against Oklahoma, both in 1989. Several others throughout history also came within 10 points of the upset.

Prior to the start of the 2018 tournament, CG experts believed a 16 seed would upset a 1 seed in the near term. There’s logic and a lot of thought to the spreads seen in a sportsbook, and they tell a much greater story than at first glance.

“It’s not a hard study. The average spread between a 1 and a 16 today versus the spread 15, 25 years ago, it’s drastically shrunk,” Simbal said. “Even prior to UMBC, the odds of it happening were greater and greater. These guys aren’t minus-25 anymore.”

When making the odds, sportsbooks don’t look at the historical records. Prior to UMBC’s upset, top seeds had won 135 first-round games in a row. In 2018, Duke was a bigger favorite as a No. 2 seed than the No. 1 seeds.

Historically, 15 seeds have had much greater success against 2 seeds, with the first No. 15 seed upset of a No. 2 seed happening in 1991 and three more from 1992 to 2001. Since 2012, there have been four upsets of a No.15 over No. 2, including two in 2012. Since 1986, there have been 21 No. 14 seed upsets against No. 3 seeds and 28 No. 13 seeds over No. 4 seeds, including two in 2018.

“It’s strength versus strength; historical records are irrelevant,” Simbal said, explaining how, if anything, historical records prove upsets are becoming more commonplace.

When diving into the minds of bettors choosing a favorite or an underdog, it often comes down to whether a school is a traditional basketball power.

“They’ll never bet against North Carolina to lose in the first round,” Simbal  said. “They’ll bet against Clemson, Auburn, or Texas Tech, the teams that have a good year and are a 2, 3 or 4 seed, but not a Blue Blood.”

The thought process pays off sometimes, and other times not so much. Logically, when looking at the lines, 2018 saw a Blue Blood near historic lows. Kansas, a No. 1 seed, had the second lowest point spread in a No. 1 vs. No. 16 game in the history of the tournament. It should also be noted that while Virginia has continually trotted out one of the best regular season teams in recent regular seasons, the Cavaliers don’t advance far in the tournament. Virginia’s history of being a victim of severe upsets might also be a signal to bettors—prior to the UMBC upset, Virginia was already the victim of the worst upset in college basketball history when it lost to then-Division II Chaminade in 1982.

For 2018’s Cinderella story, Loyola was a dream. The team, led by Sister Jean, garnered a bundle of media coverage, yet it was never a major underdog on its road to the Final Four. The biggest point spread it faced was six points against No. 3 seed Tennessee in the second round. In the final game in the Final Four, Loyola faced a smaller spread against No. 9 seed Kansas State than Kansas saw against Duke.

In the Final Four, Loyola faced a smaller spread against No. 3 seed Michigan than Kansas faced against fellow No. 1 seed Villanova.

“Loyola isn’t that monumental when looking at the spreads,” Simbal said. “It was three pick-ems and a game as a six-point dog. Perception versus reality, if you strip away the school names, it’s not crazy.”

In terms of how much money gets slapped down on a game, it’s all about the quality of a game.

“It matters so much how much people care about a game,” Simbal said. “Duke–Kansas did really well, much better than Florida State–Michigan.”