Chief Risk Officer ‘Doesn’t Care What The Seeding Says’ When Setting Lines On March Madness Underdogs

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Written By Eli Hershkovich | Last Updated
March Madness Betting

Less than a decade ago, there’s a high probability that the No. 12 seed James Madison Dukes would have been a three-possession dog among first-round March Madness odds. That doesn’t happen in today’s market. But don’t just take my word for it.

I sat down with Matt Metcalf, a well-respected sportsbook consultant, who explains why bettors won’t nab as much “value” for their 2024 March Madness upset picks as they might have in the past.

March Madness Picks: What’s Changed Of Late?

You know the storyline. There have been 53 upsets by No. 12 seeds since the NCAA tournament field expanded in 1985. The lower seed was 53-99, with a robust 34.87 win percentage. That may not sound impressive, but it is after considering each team’s implied probability of pulling off the upset.

This trend was brought back to life after 12th-seeded schools failed to record a single win in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. In fact, it nearly set a March Madness record in 2019, as three manufactured outright victories. The fourth one (New Mexico State) still covered the line.

As a result of this common outcome, oddsmakers now shorten opening spreads for double-digit (often mid-major) seeds.

According to Matt Metcalf, Mojo’s chief risk officer and former Circa Sportsbook director, the NCAA tournament committee’s incompetent seeding decisions are mostly irrelevant while crafting the odds.

“We don’t care what the seeding says,” he said. “We’re just making the number (and letting the market come in after that).

We’ve seen a direct impact over the last two tournaments. All but two No. 5 seeds made it to the second round, and each one covered the point spread. Despite a small sample size, these adjustments have made finding lines closer to bettors’ power ratings more challenging.

Metcalf Explains Why You’re Getting Fewer Points On Underdogs Than Before

Take the 2010-11 VCU Rams, with current Marquette head coach Shaka Smart at the helm. After all, they made a surprising trip to the Final Four.

Ahead of the play-in game, Bradford Burgess & Co. opened as five-point underdogs against USC. It marked the first NCAA tournament that incorporated First Four odds. The 11th-seeded Rams were tagged with the same line versus Georgetown before it rose three points against Purdue. Sportsbooks adjusted by positioning them as four-point dogs against Florida State before a 10.5-point line materialized versus top-seeded Kansas.

As noted, underdogs are receiving the benefit of the doubt, especially since novice gamblers are generally attracted to the trendier ones for their March Madness picks.

“The more competitive the game is (expected to be), the more I think you see some points shaved off (from what they used to be 5-10 years ago).

When you get to spreads between four and seven or eight, I think there’s a (mentality from bookmakers of), ‘Let’s see if someone sharp will lay this (number).’ To some degree, it’s like the number doesn’t even matter. If the ‘wise guys’ have a game at eight (point spread) in their power ratings, and the line opens five, they’re still running to the window to bet the underdog.”

The initial scenario that Metcalf referenced took place with the Dukes — mentioned above. After they were initially set as 4.5-point dogs to fifth-seeded Wisconsin, respected money inevitably came in on the Badgers, bumping this line to -5.5 as of this publishing. The current line is Wisconsin .

Given bettors’ adaptation to the market, James Madison may be valuable at that number for some. However, this spread surely would have been higher a decade ago.

Last season, Kent State was another trendy team — among March Madness upset picks — against Indiana. The Hoosiers dominated the 4-13 matchup for nearly 40 minutes.

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