Time's running out. You have to get your bracket in. You need about 15 minutes, and you need a plan.
There are so many different methods for filling out an NCAA bracket pool. Some among us will look at Jerry Palms’ RPI, the Sagarin ratings, the Pomeroy ratings, the Massey ratings and, of course, throwing darts and prayer.
But there's one factor that isn't taken into by most fans, and it's pretty reliable in a pinch: Vegas betting lines. Most fans ignore them. And that's a big mistake.
Take the opening line on the Villanova-George Mason game, for instance. GMU, the No. 8 seed, opened up as a 1.5 point favorite at the Las Vegas Hilton, Caesars and The Orleans. It opened up as a 1 point favorite at The Mirage. As of this writing, No. 9 seed Villanova is now a one point favorite at The Mirage and The Orleans, while it's a pick'em game at the Hilton and Caesars.
That means after the betting began, the line made a 2-2.5 point swing towards Villanova at The Mirage and The Orleans. There could be a variety of factors in play here. Maybe the betting public knows Villanova and is betting on name recognition. But two points is not a massive jump, and the sportsbooks clearly saw something in George Mason early on. So I'm going to stick with that pick in my brackets.
But betting with Vegas in your NCAA pools doesn't necessarily mean going straight chalk. Michigan State is the No. 10 seed in its bracket, but it opened as a 1.5 point favorite over No. 7 seed UCLA. The line actually moved to -2 for Michigan State at the Mirage for a couple of days, but it's back down 1.5 point. Is this because UCLA has a young team? Is it because the Bruins have to travel cross-country? Doesn’t matter; Vegas has its reasons and I’m taking the Spartans.
(Want another Vegas-loved first-round underdog? Look at No. 11 seed Missouri.)
The game odds can only help you during the first round. But the Las Vegas odds of who will win the tournament can help you get through the rest of the dance. Ohio State was a 7-2 favorite to win it all at the Las Vegas Hilton earlier this week. Duke was 9-2, Kansas 5-1 and Pittsburgh was 8-1. BYU came in at 50-1, while Memphis was 1000-1. These odds are generally a decent guide to a team's chances to win the tournament, but they're not perfect. The Las Vegas Hilton had Geroge Mason as a 500-1 shot to win the entire tournament, but it opened as a favorite against Villanova, who was a 100-1 shot to win.
If you're thinking this is a lot of work to just fill out a bracket, you're wrong. This information is readily accessible on the Web. Covers.com is a great resource to track betting lines. Not only does the site keep a history of how Vegas odds have moved, it also watches what offshore sportsbooks are thinking about as well.
During the next few weeks, I'm going to be keeping track of two brackets based on Vegas odds (in addition to my own personal bracket). The first bracket will be based on opening lines for first round games and the championship odds, as discussed here. The second bracket will keep track of how well Vegas favorites (based on opening lines) do throughout the tournament.
I'll report back on my results here, and we'll see how they did.