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Betting the NCAA Tournament

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A journey through each region in the NCAA Tournament, with the Vegas odds as our only road map.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to recycle an old Han Solo joke in the title, especially since a couple months ago we finally got some new Han quotes for the first time in over 30 years, but what can I say?  That's not how the force works. Also, I'll shamelessly plug last year's article here, since I ended up sounding somewhat smart in a couple of paragraphs there.  I'll admit it, when Georgia State won that first round game, I was right there with their coach, falling off my chair in celebration and trying to play it off like it was no big deal.

Like last year, all odds listed are for that team to win their region, and are accurate as of Monday night.  Don't complain to your bookie if they've changed since; they're known to be notoriously inflexible in such matters.

EAST

Smart money:  Back in June, I thought Kansas and North Carolina were going to be the two best teams in the country this year.  There were some hiccups along the way, but I think (and the committee and most of America agrees) that we've come full circle, and they're once again the two best teams in the tournament.  That being said, 3-2 odds aren't that enticing for the #1 seed in the region, not when they're staring down the barrel of an Indiana/Kentucky matchup in the Sweet 16.  That puts this region squarely in stay-away territory for me.

Best value:  Nobody really jumped out at me here-- all the bluebloods in the region skewed things.  14-1 isn't quite high enough for Notre Dame when they can't guard anybody.  I did look twice at USC at 35-1, but meh.  You could do worse than a red-hot Wisconsin team at 30-1, but ultimately, dollar for dollar, I like Xavier at 6-1.  They're solid on both sides of the ball, and Chris Mack's teams always seem to just be there, even when they're not a 2-seed.  He's quickly shooting up my list of Guys I Want Kansas To Consider If Self Ever Leaves.

Favorite longshot:  Stephen F. Austin at 75-1.  They force more turnovers than anyone in the country.  They're loaded up with seniors who have played in the last two tourneys.  They're the 33rd ranked team in Kenpom.  They haven't lost since the calendar flipped to 2016.  They haven't won a game by less than double digits since the day before the Super Bowl.  They've won their last 11 games by an average of 26 points.  Simply put, they are HOUSING teams right now.  I think they're going to beat West Virginia in the first round, and that's all I want from my longshot pick.  Win at least one game for me, and let me dream the dream for another couple of days.

MIDWEST

Smart money:  Sparty Sparty Sparty, or should I say "The Spart money"?  (I shouldn't.)  The 'Tom Izzo in March' thing is real.  Although, you could do a lot worse than Virginia at 2-1.  One of these years they won't have to play Izzo in March, and they'll be hanging a banner when that year finally arrives.

Best value:  I was all pumped to write this section about Seton Hall, who I think could easily go to the Sweet 16 and could even mess around with the Spartans a little bit....but Vegas agrees, and the #6 seed is only getting 12-1.  Then I turned  my attention to Purdue, but Vegas loves Kenpom, and Kenpom loves Purdue....so the Boilermakers are only getting 6-1.  So begrudgingly, I'll go with Dayton at 30-1.  Archie Miller has gone further with less (speaking of coaches for KU to consider...)

Favorite longshot:  I have a bit of a crush on Iona at 250-1.  Unpopular opinion alert, and maybe the biggest sign that I aged more than one year in the last 365 days:  I sorta turned on Monmouth's bench antics after a couple months of them.  It was fun for a while (Michelangelo's Creation of Adam was particularly inspired), but eventually I found myself rolling my eyes.  In the parlance of the college kids these days, "You're forcin' it, bruh."  Just the watch the game, and maybe dust off a special celebration a couple times a week.  Or better yet, spend your free time doing dribble drills and defensive slides, not choreographing dances, and maybe you wouldn't be a walk-on at a MAAC school.  Point of the story, if I have one, is that I secretly loved it when Iona brawled with them in January.  I never said it would be a quality reason that spurs me to throw down a few bucks at 250-1.

SOUTH

Smart money:  Your Kansas Jayhawks at 11-10.  Which, if you ask me, isn't that smart of money.  But that could be the Northern Iowa-VCU-Stanford residue talking.  I dunno, I'm too close to the situation.  You'll see me betting on the WNBA before you'll see me placing large sums of money on our boys.  I don't like that fact about myself, but at least I can face it.

Best value:  The team that scares me more than almost anyone else, so I was not a happy camper during the Selection Show:  Maryland, at 8-1.  I know their profile isn't the strongest, but the problem for me is twofold:  1)  Every time I watched them this year, they were lights out (so eye-test wise, I'm tearing the chart off the wall and telling the doctor "Screw it, I don't care what the letters actually are, I don't even want glasses anyway"), and 2)  I think they match up well with Kansas.  I have nightmares about what Melo Trimble could do to KU's perimeter defense.  Turnovers are a problem for them, but KU doesn't turn anyone over.  They're the 4th tallest team in the country (and California is 2nd, I literally have sweaty palms right now thinking about the Sweet 16 game), and they just have too much talent that is begging to coalesce at the perfect time.  Ugh I don't want to talk about it anymore.  Seriously, somebody cut my mic, this whole section has been about how I'm terrified Kansas is gonna lose early.

Favorite longshot:  Temple at 100-1.  We all remember VCU in 2011.  Weird things can happen when a team spends the better part of a week listening to everyone with two eyes and a mouth yelling about how they shouldn't have made the tournament in the first place.

WEST

Smart money:  Oklahoma is the second 2-seed in the bracket to have better odds (2-1) than the 1-seed in their region, and I can't argue with it.  The old cliche' is that it's tough for jump-shooting teams to string together six good games in a row, but the Sooners had longer streaks than that during the regular season, and against better competition game-in and game-out than they'll have in this tournament.  At a certain point, the old cliche' becomes irrelevant.  You can be the guy who bets against Buddy Hield doing special things.  I'll be the other guy.

Best value:  Duke at 8-1, mostly because it would just be such a Duke thing to do, to go on a run with this squad.  Their lack of depth is less of a problem in the NCAA tournament, when benches get shortened anyway.  Their offense is extremely efficient, since they shoot it well and don't turn it over.  Then again, Baylor at 8-1 is decent too, since I could absolutely see the Bears grab 75 offensive rebounds against Duke and bury them by 20 under a veritable shitstorm of dunks and trash-talking, similar to when Arizona punked them in the 2011 Sweet 16 and a nation rejoiced.  Either of those teams could give Oregon a scare, too.

Favorite longshot:  Northern Iowa at 75-1.  I'm not remotely sold on either Texas or Texas A&M, which leaves the possibility of a Sweet 16 game against Oklahoma, and it's tough for jump-shooting teams to string together six good games in a row.  Everyone knows that.